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Imaginings: An Anthology of Visionary Literature

Stefan Rudnicki, editor, Imaginings: An Anthology of Visionary Literature; Volume One: After the Myths Went Home (Frog, Ltd., 2004)

There’s nothing I enjoy so much as a good story replete with fantastical and mythological elements. Therefore, when I heard about Stefan Rudnicki’s latest venture, an anthology entitled Imaginings: An Anthology of Visionary Literature, I was beside myself with anticipation. As the name suggested, I expected a collection of bizarre and forward-thinking stories. This is the first volume of three, with this particular volume entitled After The Myths Went Home. This conjured in me anticipation for stories of myth and nihilism, meaning and void.

I cracked open the book, devouring Harlan Ellison’s brilliant foreword before turning to the contents page. I have read no few terribly dry and unappetizing forewords, and Ellison’s endeavor here was definitely not one of them. It spoke lushly and alluringly of the work Stefan Rudnicki had accomplished in this collection. It pulled me in, revved me up for a great anthological experience.

A quick scan of the contents revealed this anthology to be composed of two poems and fourteen prose selections (an assortment of stories, excerpts, and plays). The anthology is divided equally into two sections: “The Myths We Live By” and “Other Myths.” Excited by Ellison’s introduction, I hurriedly flipped the pages back to begin the anthology proper. Unfortunately, as I read on, I was ever more disappointed by this anthology.

The opening prose piece, “After the Myths Went Home” by Robert Silverberg, is a very well characterized story about what happens when we no longer breathe life into the heroes we create through stories constantly told, preferring instead to conjure our mythological figures from the past for the sake of mere spectacle. Then we pack them away once more when they no longer amuse. The narrative voice is rather distant in this story leaving the reader chilled, albeit minimally impacted. This story, though mediocre, did fit in with the purported theme of this anthology: visionary literature.

However, the main purpose of John Crowley’s “Novelty” in this anthology seems to be to take up space, as it does very little else. The concept of the piece is engaging enough: the story is meant to map out the process of creativity itself through close examination of one writer’s daily mental acrobatics, memory indulgences, and minimal social interaction. However, the execution of this idea leaves much to be desired. The story starts on an engaging note, only to maunder on into a lack of focus. Sadly, this meandering thoughtlessness is a recurring theme of this anthology. “Murderer, the Hope of All Women” by Oskar Kokoschka is the crowning example of what doesn’t belong. I do not fault it as a play — when acted out upon the stage, this piece may make actual sense where it makes so little flat upon the page. This play has something to do with men, women, and the relationship between the two sexes. If chaotic and visionary were synonymous, I could see how this translation from the German by Mr. Rudnicki would work here. However, that is not the case and this selection is one to be hurried past.

Algernon Blackwood’s “The Touch of Pan” is a well-written period piece, but again doesn’t seem to fit in well with the supposed theme of visionary literature. Admittedly, it does feature a wild young woman who does not mesh well with societal norms and who entices a socially acceptable young man to a woods-based Bacchanalian orgy. Yet it doesn’t reach much further, remaining at most a story of romance. (It is worth noting here that this is but one of four stories in the first section that feature either Bacchus or Pan and reserved order’s struggle against mad passion. While this is a worthy subject, it does seem overly represented.)

It’s no wonder, then, that I proceeded into the next section with some trepidation. If all the stories that had come before were supposedly representative of the “myths we live by,” what hope could possibly be found in a section off-handedly dubbed “Other Myths”? “Mystery Train” by Lewis Shiner helped knock that hesitance down a few notches. This story about Elvis’ fictional wartime experience regarding a future-telling television set and a dead movie star is just bizarre, culminating in a laughable, yet somehow chilling, inclusion of Elvis in a secret entertainment cabal. This sort of story is more what I expected from this anthology: extremely odd, out there, visionary.

The following story, “Continued on Next Rock” by R.A. Lafferty, was absolutely brilliant. This story contained everything I expect when I hear the term “visionary literature”: it didn’t explain itself (yet was accessible), it engaged archetypal figures, and it tripped the reader into a bizarre other world that was similar enough to our usual world that it just might be our own world seen by truly open eyes. I highly recommend this story about an archeological dig gone inexplicably awry, involving a curmudgeonly Magdalen and impossible artifacts.

“Diary of a God” by Barry Pain was a highly intriguing look at the birth of a new race of gods. Using both third person omniscient and diary entries, the author manages to depict a tale at once wonderingly mad and wholly sane. This story was definitely visionary both in thought and technical construction, but Rudnicki lessens its impact by following it with several other similarly formatted stories. Robert W. Chambers’ “The Yellow Sign” is yet another disappointment. It’s actually an excerpt from a novel entitled The King in Yellow, and therein lay one of the selection’s problems: there is too much plot outside the story to ensure satisfaction from just reading this one chapter. In brief, this story addresses the foreshadowed darkening days of a painter and his model. The source of their woe is a book about a fictional place: Carcosa (that is also addressed in two other selections of this anthology). Though this story is weird and strange, the reader is left worrying too much about what’s in that fictional book rather than the function of the book in relation to the rest of the story.

My main complaint regarding this anthology is that it is full of selections that don’t fit the “visionary literature” theme. Most of these stories are mediocre examples of a rich body of literature that spans the science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction genres. Reading through this anthology and looking at it as a cohesive whole was rather like listening to a discordant piece of music: the stories are ill-fitting and not well representative of their discrete genres. Therefore, as good as “Continued on Next Rock” is, I still don’t think I can suggest purchasing this book to the general public. However, if you happen across Imaginings at the public library, I would suggest picking it up to indulge in Lafferty’s story alone.

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on April 18th, 2004.