Thursday, August 04, 2011

Mammoth Book of Fantasy (Cont.): The Platypus Reads Part CXX

Paladin of the Lost Hour by Harlan Ellison

A lonely Vietnam war vet saves an old man from hooligans at the cemetery and then takes him in when he finds that the old fellow has no place to go.  They're an odd couple, even being different races, but they form a powerful friendship that helps them deal with past events they could never have tackled on their own.  Sounds like it could be a great story.  And it is.  Then there's this other story about a Pope who hid an extra hour inside a watch and gave it to his most trusted servant to guard because should the watch ever open, it would mean the end of the universe.  This watch has been handed down through the generations and now it's last guardian is dying and must find a worthy successor.  Harlan Ellison's task is to somehow combine these two stories into one in "The Paladin of the Lost Hour."

"The Paladin of the Lost Hour" is a sort of minimalist fantasy.  That is the world of the story is as close to our own world as possible with only one key twist.  In this case, the story is just another "buddy story" with the key twist of the magical watch to make it a fantasy.  The question is whether that one fantastic element mars or makes the otherwise realistic narrative.  Deciding whether the technique works or not in "The Paladin of the Lost Hour" is a hard one for me.  Ellison is such an adept writer that his "buddy story" really stands on its own two feet as a beautiful piece of work.  The fantasy elements are equally well written, but seem like an unwelcome intrusion into the world that he was set up.  Ultimately, I think that the fantasy element may detract from the themes and ideas of the piece rather than enhancing them.  I'm not one-hundred percent sure yet, but even the fact that I'm split says something about the dangers in writing this kind of minimalist fantasy.

Yesterday Was Monday by Theodore Sturgeon

In "Yesterday Was Monday," we have a little different spin on the fantastic.  Instead of minimalist fantasy, or alternate world fantasy, or lost age fantasy, we have a great example of fantasy as "what if."  What if a man woke up and suddenly was able to behold the secret workings of the universe; angles set-dressing, and archangels haggling over production schedules?  That's the "what if" that Theodore Sturgeon seeks to imagine in "Yesterday Was Monday."  Our unlikely Dante, a car mechanic named Harry, goes to sleep on Monday and wakes up on Wednesday to find that "Wednesday" is not a day, but a set that is being furiously dressed by angels and their servants for the next act of the cosmic drama.  Harry stumbles about with comic ineptitude, and meets archangels, God, and what might be a demon.  Eventually learning the rules of the production house, he is able to manipulate its denizens and get back to his proper place and day.

This sort of thing is amusing and forms, perhaps along with fairy tales, the most accessible form of Fantasy.  Mike Ashley, the editor of the collection, notes that this sort of fantasy is the kind that commonly appears in mainstream venues like The Saturday Evening Post.  I can remember reading more than a few things in this vein in literature textbooks when I was growing up.  There isn't any real moral to the story, but it does scratch that very human itch of asking "what if."  After all, what is fantasy more than the human capacity to ask "what if" and then set to work trying to answer that question?

Up Next: Pixel Pixies by Charles de Lint and The Moon Pearl by A. Merritt 

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