James P. Blaylock has always been a strange fit for me, in terms of style, genre, and subject matter, and I don’t know that I’d recommend him to everyone. But something about his work gets under my skin; I may have put my finger on it in my review of his recent novel The Knights of the Cornerstone. His collection The Shadow on the Doorstep (2009) provides glimpses of Blaylock’s trademark, skewed vision in short form. It’s a big beautiful book, enhanced by author’s notes, illuminating tributes from Tim Powers and Lewis Shiner, and other biographical extras.
While I generally find Blaylock’s novel-length work easy to immerse myself in, the same isn’t always true of his short fiction. For the most part, though, the stories in this volume provide the same quirky protagonists, subtle genre content, nostalgia for bygone ways, and mildly cockeyed fictional realities. For my money, the best stories here are the more recent ones, many of them first appearing at the late, lamented Sci Fiction. My favorite is probably “In for a Penny; or, The Man Who Believed in Himself,” the tale of a man who develops a hilariously escalating obsession with treasure hunting when a garage sale find leads him down the slippery slope of greed. A close runner-up is “The Dry Spell,” a wonderful depiction of a man’s playful battle of wills with Mother Nature; a simple, beautiful story. Similar, subtle wonders can be found in “The Other Side,” “His Own Back Yard,” and “Small Houses.” Then, of course, there’s “Doughnuts,” a terrific little story about an old man with a goofy food addiction, and the perfect recursive SF story “Thirteen Phantasms,” a nicely clocked little nostalgia trip that ends on just the right note.
The remainder of the stories didn’t quite compute for me, despite similar qualities, but all in all it’s a strong collection. Perhaps not a gateway to Blaylock fandom, but sure to please the converted.