James Blaylock’s Thirteen Phantasms and Other Stories has recurred throughout my adult life like the aquarium shop in his “The Shadow on the Doorstep.” I first read it while still living with my parents. Years later, I sought out a library copy without remembering much about the book besides vague central concepts from a couple of the stories (“a man mails himself back in time”, “artificial dragons”, “weird aquarium shop”). On both reads, I enjoyed it immensely, so I decided to purchase a copy of my own—and read it again, of course.
Three of the stories in the collection (“The Ape-Box Affair”, “Two Views of a Cave Painting”, and “The Idol’s Eye”) feature Langdon St. Ives, about whom Blaylock has written a series of novels. These light-hearted stories, in which St. Ives builds such contraptions as a spaceship or a time machine on an estate outside Victorian London, recall the pulp fiction of the 1950s-1970s, as well as Arthur C. Clarke’s “White Hart” tales.
The Langdon St. Ives stories fall more-or-less into the subgenre known as steampunk, and there are certainly elements of this in the World Fantasy Award-winning “Paper Dragons” as well. While it’s set in modern-day California, it also features dragons made of wire, gemstones, paper, and clockwork. The narrator agrees to help his neighbor make contact with the enigmatic Augustus Silver, a renowned creator of such dragons. In the process, he begins to question how much of what he’s seeing is real, how much is imagination, and just how thin the line between those two really is.
While most of the stories in Thirteen Phantasms fall squarely within the realm of speculative fiction, there are a few that, while they deal with unusual subject matter, don’t have any overt fantastical elements. These stories share a common theme: repairing a romantic relationship that has gone awry. In “Doughnuts,” the protagonist and his wife must each come to terms with the other having a great enthusiasm that they don’t share. In “Bugs”, a main character who finds it easier to talk to bugs than people grapples with his wife’s attempts at reconciliation. In both of these stories, the human relationships are beautifully rendered, and the quirky settings breathe new life into what could otherwise be bland domestic dramas.
“We Traverse Afar” (co-written with Tim Powers) and “The Old Curiosity Shop” also deal with the relationships between husbands and wives. In these stories, however, one member of the partnership is deceased, and the other must deal with what is left behind. Both stories are powerful examinations of grief and healing. The best speculative fiction tales are often those in which the relationships between the characters and their internal struggles are as central as the supernatural goings-on. Blaylock tells that kind of story perfectly here.
Despite the high praise I’ve given to some of the other pieces, “The Shadow on the Doorstep” remains my favorite story. It’s a wonderfully atmospheric tale, and truly captures a central theme that runs through Blaylock’s work: the idea that you don’t need to travel through time and space in search of marvels. If you’re paying attention, you may find that they’re just around the corner, and that they’ve been there all along.