How could the multiple subjects, settings and genres in James Van Pelt’s fourth collection, Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille, be anything more than a mixed bag? A suburban dad whose son dreams of dragons, a 30-something virgin in an oddly haunted house, a moon dweller overseeing ‘‘full reality skin shell rentals’’ for tourists curious about old Earth, a questing knight, a sophisticated E.T. whose academic curiosity about us primitive earthlings changes with closer contact….
It’s Van Pelt’s refusal to accept the usual distinctions between normality and strangeness that both gives the book its odd sense of unity – one guiding spirit – and the stories a combined power more than the sum of their parts. He conjures magics linking body, mind, and heart – life as we know it – from such simple stuff as a school desk, the images a horny teenager once stuck to his bedroom wall, and World War One memorabilia in a Denver bar. And his excursions into myth, history, or the far future seem just as lived-in, when nonchalant little details take us there.
The title story opens in the midst of action: a pilot from the famed Lafayette Escadrille squadron flies, half-frozen by the ‘‘November air’’ at 14,000 feet. And the air ace won’t dissolve into a wish-fulfillment fancy even when his adventures prove to be the dreams of a quiet drinker, gazing up at the ‘‘completely restored Nieuport’’ hung in an overdecorated bar. ‘‘Night Sweats’’ masterfully weaves its many strands – a grown woman’s fear of sex; a WWII-era schoolboy’s collage, with Tokyo Rose supreme among the vamps; the wild mood swings of the ’40s, home to both Casablanca and the bombing of Hiroshima; the little messes caused by a restless poltergeist – into a moving tale of change. The few pages of ‘‘Just Before Recess’’ make the crazy concept of a schoolboy with ‘‘a sun in his desk’’ seem real enough that readers will both laugh and wince when his teacher decides to pry.
Van Pelt himself still teaches high school and college English, as well as writing. Aside from that one hapless victim, some of the other instructors here seem more like wizards. Uncanny power crops up totally without warning in the most recent story, ‘‘Mrs. Hatcher’s Evaluation’’ (Asimov’s 2012), when an evaluator assigned to check out a frumpy woman’s history lectures gets swept up, along with all her students, in an experience that feels more like time travel.
Even when a teacher gets dragged back to work by creatures that had been his students, in the brief zombie satire ‘‘Classroom of the Living Dead’’, there’s a kind of odd magic when – at a loss for other options – he starts diagraming sentences on a blackboard and becomes lost in ‘‘the arcane language of grammar.’’ Though their faces stay blank and all he hears are a few groans for ‘‘braaaiiins,’’ no one tries to eat him. He moves beyond despair to conclude: ‘‘Tomorrow I think I’ll teach literature. Some Dickinson, some Poe. Tomorrow I’ll teach the dead and for a moment pretend that the world will go on.’’ Whether the horror’s pulpish or tragically real, we can learn from his example.