You can try to escape from the mundane, or with the help of Paul Di Filippo, you can take a short, meaningful break from it. In the vein of George Saunders or Michael Chabon, Di Filippo uses the tools of science fiction and the surreal to take a deep, richly felt look at humanity. His brand of funny, quirky, thoughtful, fast-moving, heart-warming, brain-bending stories exist across the entire spectrum of the fantastic from hard science fiction to satire to fantasy and on to horror, delivering a riotously entertaining string of modern fables and stories from tomorrow, now and anytime. After you read Paul Di Filippo, you’ll no longer see everyday life quite the same.
The 17 stories in this collection allow us to encounter Salvador Dali stumbling through his own personalized afterlife; experience the hilariously odd life of Hiram P. Dottle from birth through death and on into several reincarnations; gaze in wonder as a boy is born without a brain and his skull is invaded by wild animals; and, in the title story, a professor of children’s literature discovers a bizarre set of similarities between a lost text and his illicit relationship with one of his students.
Originally published: 2002
|Publisher:||Open Road Media|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||2 MB|
About the Author
Di Filippo is also a highly regarded critic and reviewer, appearing regularly in Asimov’s Science Fiction and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A recent publication, coedited with Damien Broderick, is Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985–2010.
Read an Excerpt
By Paul Di Filippo
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2002 Paul Di Filippo
All rights reserved.
Once upon a time ... began the story Jerome Crawleigh was trying to read but couldn't.
Squeezing crocodile tears out from his eyelids' tender embrace, Crawleigh pinched the bridge of his fine Roman nose. Good God, was there no end to the books to be devoured and digested before he could begin to write his own latest? And his field—children's literature—was comparatively empty. What if he had chosen some other, older byway of literature, more crowded with primary texts and execrable exegeses? Wouldn't that have been just dandy?
Ah, exegesis—such a resounding, academic word. When in doubt, explicate. Extricate yourself from words with more words, analogous to some hair of the dog on the morning after. Something of a self-perpetuating cycle. But what the hell, give it a go. Perhaps penetrate the thicket of cliché that hid the elusive hare of fairy-tale truth....
Once: Not twice or thrice, but once. Singular, not-to-be-duplicated experience. Yet by implication, if unique wonders happened once, others might again.
Upon: What other preposition would do so well here? During, in, on? Definitely not! We need the connotation of "in the course of," indicating simultaneous progression and fixity in a particular milieu.
A: Here, a neat touch of vagueness and remoteness. Not "the" time (as of a certain king, perhaps), but "a" time, nebulous and mistily distant
Time: Ah, yes, the most loaded word in the language. Not its counterpart, space, an intuitively graspable dimension, but time, breeder of paradox, reviver of hopes and loves. If the tale to be told were merely distant in space, how easily discounted or disproved. But "dis-placed" in time, what power it gains! So—
Once upon a time ...
But Crawleigh's professorial spell, although woven by a past master, was not strong enough to get beyond this initial obstacle. Something was wrong with his brain today. Dropping the offending book upon his littered desktop, where it snapped shut with a dusty clap, he pushed blunt fingers through curly greying hair, as if to palpitate the reluctant organ. Was it the office itself that was to blame? Dark wood moldings waxed by generations of janitors; shelf upon shelf of accusatory books, their spines stiff as soldiers'; yellowing framed diplomas on cracked plaster walls, constricting his life as surely as if the frames had been dropped like hoops over his head and around his arms.
Possibly. Quite possibly the office was at fault. He ought to get out. But where would he go? Not home. No, definitely not home. Upon his unexpected arrival, there would be unpleasant questions aplenty from Connie to greet him. He would face her usual endless prying into his affairs, her tirades about his meager pay and her lack of status among other university wives. Not the faculty lounge either. At the moment, the company of his fellow pedants was least attractive to him.
Suddenly he thought of Audrey. How many days had it been since his last tryst with audacious Audrey, queen of the copiers, Zenobia of the Xerox shop? Just the tonic for his blues, just the girl he'd hate to lose. Audrey it was.
Crawleigh emerged from behind his desk, moved to the coat rack and snatched his modified safari jacket from its hook. With his desert boots and cords and jacket, he thought he looked rather rakish, explorer of an intellectual terrain.
And besides, he felt more comfortable with Audrey, dressed so.
Crawleigh left his office behind.
Out on the quad, under the elms, Crawleigh began to feel better almost immediately. Seeing the students idling in the young shade of the newly leafed trees recalled his own youth to him, reminding him of a time when he had had dreams and hopes and desires similar to theirs.
And were such things gone now entirely from his life? he wondered as he traced a diagonal across the grassy square. Or had the simple wants and plans of his youth merely been transmuted into mature shapes? Was loss involved, or only metamorphosis?
Crawleigh tried to put by such ponderous puzzles. He was in search of forgetfulness right now, not answers. The anodyne of Audrey was augury enough.
As Crawleigh approached the big arch that framed one entrance to the campus, his gaze was attracted by a bright dab of colors down by the ground, at the foot of the marble gateway. Intrigued, he stopped to investigate.
My, my, the art students had been busy with their guerrilla activities again. Not content with formal galleries, they had recently taken to creating public displays that would ostensibly reach more people.
This piece seemed more whimsical than strident.
Painted on the marble surface of the arch was a tiny trompe l'oeil. Starting at ground level, a flight of stairs led up to a little door. The golden knob and black hinges were rendered in minute detail. The whole thing looked quite convincingly like an entrance into the solid marble structure. But the only creature that could have used such a door would have been small as a mouse.
And in fact ... why, yes, there were words below the painting that said—so discerned Crawleigh while bending down without regard for propriety—"The Mouse Collective."
Straightening up, Crawleigh found himself smiling. His fancy was tickled. As students' conceptions went, this wasn't too sophomoric.
Moving under and beyond the arch, out into the public street, Crawleigh kept his eyes open for further works by the Mouse Collective, and was not disappointed.
A painted ladder ran up a retaining wall and into a drainpipe.
A curtained window big as a playing card mimicked the human-sized one set beside it.
Small steps made of wood were nailed in a spiral on a tree. Up in the branches, Crawleigh thought to detect a tiny treehouse.
At the base of a stop sign was painted a mouse-sized traffic light, glowing perpetually green.
A nail-studded, wood-grained, rusty-ringed trap door was illusioned into the sidewalk.
After noting these fanciful brainchildren of the Mouse Collective, Crawleigh began to grow bored with the project. As usual, no one knew when to stop. Just because once was clever, twice was not twice as clever. Crawleigh ceased looking for the little paintings, and in fact soon forgot about them.
In a couple of minutes he came to the Street, which cut perpendicularly across his path. Traffic was thick today, car horns blaring as drivers jostled for parking spaces.
The Street was the commercial heart of the town's university district. Here, around the university bookstore, dozens of businesses had gathered over the decades. A dry cleaner, a liquor store, two ice-creameries, clothing stores, shoe stores, a Store 24, an Army-Navy surplus outlet, jewelry and lingerie boutiques, several restaurants, a deli, a grocery, a hardware store, a toy store, a computer vendor—
—and, of course, those invaluable adjuncts to exploding and processing information, rival copy shops.
In one of which worked Audrey. Disarmingly simple, naive urchin, waif, and savior of overcivilized senses, thought Crawleigh. Be there today, when I need you.
Arriving at the door of the copy place, Crawleigh saw her through the window and let out an involuntary relieved sigh. Then he went in.
The interior of the shop was hot and noisy and smelled of obscure chemicals. Automatic feeders sucked in sheets to be copied faster than the eye could follow. Light blasted the images off them onto blanks, and copies and originals were spat out by the insatiable machines. Workers scurried to collate paper and placate the crowd of customers.
Audrey unwittingly presented her profile to Crawleigh. She was copying pages of a book. She left the copier lid up during the process, so that her form was bathed in a garish green light as each page was zapped, transforming her visage into something from another world.
She was small and skinny. Her tight blue-and-white-striped stovepipe pants revealed her legs to be without any excess flesh, from thigh to ankle. (How unlike cloyingly constant Connie's chubby calves!) She wore ankle socks, white high heels. Her black hair was teased on top and short except where it feathered her neck.
Finishing the task at hand, she scooped up the copies from the out-tray and turned toward the counter.
Her features were plain, perhaps sharp, but not homely: simply undistinguished by any great beauty or vitality. To compensate, she wore too much makeup. Dark eyeliner, glossy lipstick, lots of blush. A few stray arcs of hair cut across her forehead. She was twenty-two years old.
Crawleigh had never seen anyone so outlandishly attractive to him. That wasn't precisely right. (And we must have precision mustn't we?) Audrey was so quintessentially like a thousand, thousand other young women her age that she affected Crawleigh like an archetype. When he made love to her, he felt he was tapping into the essence of a generation, pinning a symbol to the mattress.
Every litcrit's wet dream.
Crawleigh saw Audrey's face pass through three or four distinct emotions when she spotted him. Surprise, anger, interest, a determination to play the coquette. She was so delightfully transparent!
"Hello, Audrey," Crawleigh said.
As usual, she was chewing gum. Ringing up the sale, she snapped the elastic fodder deliberately, knowing he couldn't stand it.
"Oh, Professor Crawleigh. What a surprise. I thought you moved outta town or something. Haven't seen you in so long."
Crawleigh experienced the delightful thrill that came from bantering with double meanings, trying to maintain at least a surface of innocence, yet also trying to get across the rather salacious things he intended.
"Ah, well," Crawleigh replied, "you know how busy life becomes around midterms. I barely get to leave the department. And I just haven't needed your services till today."
"Izzat so?" Audrey studied her polished nails as if they contained infinite secrets. "Next!" she called out, and stuck out her hand for something to be copied. Receiving a loose page, she turned as if their conversation were over.
Crawleigh was not discouraged, having played this game before. "If I drop something off later this afternoon, will you attend to it personally? I need it quite desperately."
Audrey spoke back over her small shoulder. "Okay. But don't make it too late. I'm done at three."
"Wonderful," said Crawleigh, meaning it.
When Audrey smiled then, she was almost special looking.
And when she stepped into Crawleigh's car at three, he was smiling too.
* * *
The book—if it was ever started, let alone finished—was going to be burdened with one of those weighty titles complete with colon that assured academic immortality.
The Last Innocents: Children's Fantastic Literature in America and Britain during the First Decade of the Twentieth Century.
The projected text that Crawleigh had in mind—the Platonic ideal that always outshone the reality—was going to concentrate on two authors of genius.
For the sake of glorious symmetry, one of the geniuses would be British and female, the other male and American.
The envelopes, please.
Lyman Frank Baum.
Through the carapace of Crawleigh's cynicism and jadedness, these names still sent a thrill along his nerves. Simply to hear or read them was to be propelled back in time to his youth, when, as a solitary sort of kid, he had hid on many a summer day in the fantasies of these two, who—he knew even then, as a ten-year-old surrounded by the insanity of a world orgasming in its second great war of the century—had been special voices from an era far, far away and utterly unreachable.
What was it about the first decade of this mad, bad century that made it so luminous and special in Crawleigh's mind? He was not fool enough to imagine that life then had been Edenic, nor human nature other than its frequently rancid self. No, he knew the litany of facts as well as any other educated person. Child labor, endemic diseases running rampant, bigotry, hunger, outhouses, colonialism, jingoism, the Armenian genocide, illiteracy, poverty, fires that would decimate wooden cities, and of course, lurking just around the corner, The War to End All Wars.... Taken all in all, not an objectively pleasant time to live.
But if one tried to understand the era in the only way one could ever apprehend the past—through its art and artifacts—then one was forced to conclude that the decade had been possessed of a certain uninhibited innocence that had vanished forever from the globe.
The Wizard of Oz. The Five Children and It. Queen Zixi of Ix. The Story of the Amulet. The Magical Monarch of Mo. Gone, all gone, that unselfconsciously delightful writing. Current fantasy was produced mainly for adults, and the little bit Crawleigh had sampled was a botched, stereotyped, unmagical mess. And what of juvenile literature today? Full of drugs and pregnancies, child abuse and death. Jesus, you could practically see each author panting to be hailed as the next Balzac of the training-bra set.
His book would illuminate this whole fallen condition, and the glory whence it had descended. The outline had him starting back with the Victorians for a running jump. Thackeray, Lang, Stockton, MacDonald, certainly Carroll. Then land in the era of his main concern, and spend the largest portion of the book there. Perhaps with a digression on fantasy in early comics: Herriman's Krazy Kat and McCay's Little Nemo.
Yes, a fine ambition this book, and certain to be widely appreciated. The culmination of a life of reading.
If only he could just finish these last few texts.
Crawleigh had gotten through the book that had stumped him the other day. A minor work, but useful as one more citation. Now he was ready to read one last critical work that had just reached him.
The book was by a colleague of Crawleigh's whom he had often met at numerous literary conferences. Judd Mitchell. When he and Mitchell last talked, the other man had let slip a bit of his newest thesis, and Crawleigh had grown nervous, since it touched peripherally on Crawleigh's own. But now Mitchell's book was in hand, and a quick riffle through it had shown Crawleigh that it certainly didn't poach on his territory to any great extent.
Feeling quite relieved and even generous toward Mitchell for hewing to what was expected of him, Crawleigh settled back in his office chair to study the book at greater length.
A couple of hours passed. Crawleigh stopped only to light a stenchy pipe and discharge clouds of smoke. He found himself enjoying the book. Mitchell had a certain facileness with facts. Nothing like Crawleigh's own witty yet deep style, of course. Too bad about the man's personal life. Crawleigh had recently heard rumors that Mitchell had lit out for parts unknown, abandoning wife and family. Something about accumulated gambling debts coming to light.
Midway through the book, Crawleigh came upon a passage that affected him like a pitchfork to the rear.
Perhaps one of the most curious books for children that has ever been written is the neglected Little Doors, by Alfred Bigelow Strayhorn. Published by the once-prestigious but now defunct firm of Drinkwater & Sons, in 1903, the story concerns the Alicelike adventures of a girl named Judy, who encounters a surprisingly mercenary cast of characters, including a Shylockian shark and a racehorse who escapes the glue factory by gaining wings. Judy's encounter with Professor Mouse, who explains the theory of little doors, is particularly well-done. But the cumulative effect of the narrative is vastly more unsettling than the sum of its parts.... Of course, it is most fruitful to read the book as a sustained attack on capitalism and its wastage of human souls ...
Crawleigh abandoned Mitchell's book and puffed contemplatively on his pipe. Once one discounted Mitchell's inane socialism, the man seemed to have stumbled upon an undeniably exciting find. In Crawleigh's own extensive searches of the literature, he had never encountered the book cited by Mitchell. (And why did that queer title strike him so deeply?) Now he knew he had to track it down, though. If he failed to incorporate it into his study, everyone would soon be making unflattering comparisons between his book and Mitchell's, in terms of completeness.
To the library, then! Descend like the Visigoths on Rome! Pillage the stacks, burn the card catalog, smash the terminals, rape the librarians....
One shouldn't start thinking in such violent sexual imagery on a hot April afternoon, of course, unless one was quite prepared to act on it, Crawleigh reminded himself.
So up he got and went to seek Audrey's awesomely attractive and appreciated little arse.
Excerpted from Little Doors by Paul Di Filippo. Copyright © 2002 Paul Di Filippo. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
- Little Doors
- The Grange
- Sleep Is Where You Find It
- The Horror Writer
- My Two Best Friends
- The Death of Salvador Dali
- Our House
- Jack Neck and the Worrybird
- Stealing Happy Hours
- Singing Each to Each
- Rare Firsts
- Return to Cockaigne
- The Short Ashy Afterlife of Hiram P. Dottle
- Mehitabel in Hell