This generous, stimulating, mammoth compendium commemorates the fifty-two years of Neal Barrett Jr.’s short-story production, and arrives none too soon, while the author is still a sprightly young eighty-three-years old. John Clute notes, in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, that Barrett “has never published prolifically in shorter forms.” But even a few stories per year over the span of five decades amounts to a substantial legacy. And when they are as good as these tales, such a book constitutes a true treasury, a landmark volume for lucky genre readers.
We open with “In the Shadow of the Worm” (1964), perhaps the best Cordwainer Smith story that Smith himself never wrote. In a far-off future (one pivotal historical milestone occurred ten thousand years in the galaxy’s past), a regal woman and her android manservant seek to determine the fate of a guttering humanity. Barrett’s zesty prose harkens to that of the more idiosyncratic David Bunch, while his fabulism speaks to a certain mode Zelazny was beginning to also employ during this era of SF. Next up, “To Plant a Seed” (1963) occupies with brilliance that great sub-genre, the mystery of an alien race’s culture and lifecycle. Two humans alone on the planet of Sahara III, whose total population is 888 natives, must strive to walk the delicate line between noninterference and assistance. In the opening line of this tale we also see Barrett’s cardinal trait of humor: “Gito leaned against his dome and squinted narrowly at the 888 naked vermilion backsides.”
Combining the strengths of Keith Laumer (in his Retief mode) and Robert Sheckley, “The Stentorii Luggage” (1960) is a slambang adventure in a hotel for aliens, where the human managers have to use their wits to track down freed carnivorous chamaeleon pets. In a space-opera setting, “A Walk on Toy” (1971) examines issues of privilege, colonialism and empathy in a blackly melancholic manner that might recall to readers the parallel efflorescence of Delany and his Nova, or perhaps James Tiptree too. A piercing modern urban legend, freshly conceived and delivered, “The Flying Stutzman” (1978) is worthy of sharing pages with the best of Harlan Ellison.
“Nightbeat” (1975) is an exotic prose poem full of neologisms about a future cop’s odd turf. “Hero” (1979) limns the R&R of Marcus Ash, tough soldier in a bad interstellar war. “Survival Course” (1974) finds a man arguing for his life with the computer governing his spaceship’s escape pod. A conman gets his alien comeuppance in “Grandfather Pelts” (1970). Post-disaster Gulf Coast America under its new conquerors receives a gritty examination in “Diner”( 1987), where we also get some pure, hard Barrett wisdom: “Life has compensations, but there’s no way of knowing what they are.” And both “Sallie C.” (1986) and “Winter on the Belle Fourche” (1989) are historical fantasias of the Old West involving folks you might have heard of—like Emily Dickinson, for instance.
Barrett offers a psychedelic dystopia in “Stairs” (1988); a Mad Max odyssey of “sex, tacos and dangerous drugs” in “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” (1988); and a Kafkaesque fable in “Highbrow” (1987). All three of these stories are good places to marvel at Barrett’s sharp ear for and facility with dialogue, whether it be Carrollian as in “Stairs” or streetwise regional vernacular as in “Ginny.”
“Perpetuity Blues” (1987) stands out as my favorite tale in the whole collection. It’s a gonzo bildungsroman, a masterpiece of life-is-weirder-than-fiction synchronicity, fueled at its heart by the inimitably joyous character of Maggie McKenna, naïve aspiring playwright. Involving time-travel, aliens, “scientist and girl magazines,” and magic chastity belts, it begs to be filmed.
Barrett has a career parallel to his one in fantastika, and it features crime fiction. A couple of short-form samples prove highly invigorating. “Tony Red Dog” (1989) is focused on the twisted mentality of the title figure, who finds women a little too irresistible, while “Hit” (1992) concerns a seriously botched murder. Returning to SF, “The Last Cardinal Bird in Tennessee” (1990) is a stage play that reads like an episode of Futurama written by George Saunders. Some thirty pages long, “Cush” (1993) is a Flannery O’Connor-territory novella about a mutant child that blends Lovecraft with Bixby with PKD.
Barrett is a sure hand with post-apocalypse scenarios, making them all too plausible. “Under Old New York” (1991) takes the prize for rugged naturalism, while “Rhido Wars” (2001) and “Slidin'” (2008) are more surreal (like “Stairs”), with some Riddley Walker-style linguistic experimentation. “Radio Station St. Jack” (2008) rounds out the quartet with its Walter Miller meets Norman Rockwell vibe
Finally, a foursome of singletons: “Tourists” (2004) takes us into afterlife cruising; “Getting Dark” (2006) is the bardo experience of a vapid woman; “The Heart” (2006) is Roadside Americana; and “Limo” (2009) depicts a decadent agency that arranges fatal encounters.
Emerging from over five hundred pages of Neal Barrett Jr.’s singular, macabre, exultant, visionary storytelling, the reader will feel that without his presence, our genre would be a vastly paler and feebler and less interesting creature.