Locus Review of Everland

As Elizabeth Hand points out in her introduction to Paul Witcover’s collection Everland and Other Stories, Witcover’s fiction has been “fearless in its refusal to remain locked inside the borders of genre” since his first published story in 1984—long before genre slippage had become the stuff of movements and manifestos—and if his name isn’t one of the first that comes to mind when such movements are discussed, it’s probably his own fault. His rate of short fiction production is just short of tectonic; four of the twelve stories here originally appeared in the 1980s, three appeared in the intervening decades, and five are original to this collection. Having five Witcover stories appear all at once, by his standard of prolificacy, would seem to officially count as a something of a fit. Fortunately, it’s a fit we should be glad to witness, since Witcover’s approach to his narrative materials isn’t quite like anyone else’s, and since the best story here, the Nebula-nominated “Left of the Dial,” could well become something of a classic of technique, in its gradual and masterful insinuation of the materials of the ghost story and the time-shift tale into what begins as a thoroughly mainstream exploration of the dynamics of grief. Beginning with an account of the narrator’s mother’s death in a superbly realized setting of Reston, Virginia and gradually revealing a tangle of guilt-ridden relationships stretching back to a death that occurred decades earlier, it’s one of a handful of stories I might want to give to people by way of explaining how the fantastic can illuminate and inform the sensibility of quotidian realism without violating or overwhelming the emotional terms of the initial tale.

But “Left of the Dial” is the final story in the collection, following the long-established principle of ending on an anthemic note, and part of what lends the collection an unusual fascination is in seeing how Witcover gets there. The opening story, “Mayaland” (originally published in Night Cry in 1986) is a much more conventional horror tale, despite its evocative Guatemalan setting reminiscent of Lucius Shepard. The protagonist, an idealistic American hanging out in a seedy bar, meets an Indian who shows him remarkable portraits carved from avocado pits, and who lures him to a remote village where ancient rituals remain alive. The Paris of “The Cats of Thermidor” is an equally evocative setting—this is one of Witcover’s consistent strengths—in which a young American historian arrives to do research despite a spate of café bombings. He meets and begins a passionate affair with a neighbor who makes jewelry for cats, but—as with “Mayaland”—the ending is just convenient enough to permit the reader to discern it well before the narrator does. But in the other earlier stories here, Witcover pointedly leads us in directions that don’t permit easy endings: “Red Shift”, narrated by a hydrocephalic girl in a ratty has-been traveling show called the Wonder Circus, is haunting yet unsentimental in a way that almost evokes the fiction of Margo Lanagan (though this story is Witcover’s very first, from 1984!), while the other 1980s story, “Moonlight Becomes Magenta” (1988) presents a Hamlet-like dilemma to a young boy born into revolutionary 19th-century South America, who may find a solution to his problem with the aid of a visiting band of gypsies. But of all these earlier tales, “Lighthouse Summer” (1991) most clearly prefigures the authenticity of memory we’ll later see in “Left of the Dial”, as a boy troubled by his mother’s remarriage befriends a ghost-like “captain” who inhabits an abandoned lighthouse near his home. The characters here are as fully realized as any in the collection.

The original stories here may go even further in explaining why Witcover hasn’t achieved a clear identity for many readers: no two are remotely alike. One of the most ambitious—and the one which most closely alludes to a familiar tradition—is “Everland”. The Peter Pan tale has been masticated and realigned more than it needs to be in recent fantasy—Pat Cadigan, Peter David, Bruce Glassco, perhaps most notably Jane Yolen’s “Lost Girls”—but Witcover manages to take it in an unexpected and edgy direction, unpacking the more brutal undertones of the tale without denaturing its magic. “Twilight of the Dogs” depicts an apocalyptic civil war from the point of view of one of the fundamentalist Christians whose leaders initiated it, and the management of point of view—right up until the ingenious ending—is what sells the story. “The Silver Ghost” is essentially a character portrait of a too-involved nurse who undertakes the care of a young man brain-damaged by wrecking the car of the title, turning into a contest of wills with the boy’s father which perhaps too readily resolves into a ghost story with a “Twilight Zone” ending. “Where Balloons Go”, though, is the most hypnotically Kafkaesque tale in the book, complete with a Kafkaesque drudge named Felix—a proofreader in a New York law firm—awakened one night by the door buzzer in his new apartment and later dogged by an apparently homeless man who insists Felix has a rare magical marble, an aggie, left behind by the previous inhabitant. In a material sense, it’s the purest fantasy tale in the book, opening up in a way that seems both inevitable and terrifying. At his best, when he avoids contrivance and lets the story find its own logic—as he does here, in “Left of the Dial,” and in varying degree in most of the tales in Everland and Other Stories, Witcover convinces us that he’s a voice we’d like to hear far more from, and one who, but for the sparsity of his output, might well be thought of in terms comparable to Elizabeth Hand, Jeffrey Ford, and a handful of others involved in renegotiating the uses of the fantastic.

- Gary Wolfe