Waldrop, Howard. Horse of a Different Color.

East Hampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2013.

If Howard Waldrop, the Trout-Hunter, is not officially listed as a bona fide American Institution, he certainly ought to be, and any long-time attendee of ArmadilloCon can tell you why. For years, the Howard Waldrop Show at the con has been SRO, as his friends and fans hunker down to listen to him read a new story. Complete with props and often with dramatic lighting supplied by a flashlight.

Howard is not, unfortunately, a prolific short-story writer (it generally takes him six months to a year from idea to completion), but almost every story he does write is a unique gem, worth re-reading and savoring anew every couple of years. And while he’s generally considered an SF/F author, he’s actually sort of his own genre.

Then, in 2008, I heard through the fannish grapevine that he had suffered a stroke or a heart attack or something, had been rushed to the hospital, and had undergone a quintuple bypass. He was in therapy for many months at a Texas VA hospital, learning to walk again. And then his sight began to go, which has meant many more surgeries. Half the ten stories in this latest collection were written before those appalling events and half after, and there are, not surprisingly, distinct differences between the two groups. But they’re still all Pure Howard.

Howard does a lot of research for his stories and he likes to build them around real people and events — though the line between “real” and “made up” can be a subtle one. “Why Then Ile Fit You” is about movie stars getting old in some comfort in the 1950s, as described by George Zucco, a name fans of black-and-white horror flicks will recognize immediately. It can’t be said to have a plot, really, but it has a heck of lot of atmosphere. “Thin, on the Ground” is Howard in a didactic mood, but he’s not heavy-handed about it. On the surface, it’s the narrator and his best friend heading for the Mexican border in search of Boy’s Town the day after high school graduation in 1962. But it quickly becomes both a homage to Robert E. Howard and a reaction to Dubya’s banana republic presidency.

What if lycanthropy was a real thing? Why, then, a man who committed several murders while not in his own skin might end up in a high-security facility — and that’s the situation in “The Wolf-man of Alcatraz,” in which inmate Bob Howlin has to be confined to a special basement room with bank-vault doors at every full moon, for the safety of everyone on the Rock. And when you’ve finished, it may dawn on you that you’ve never actually seen the werewolf. A terrific story, one that could provide the premise for a whole series of yarns. And again: What if King Kong were real? That’s the premise of “The Bravest Girl I Ever Knew . . . ,” a sentimental remembrance of a young actress who went from cheap boarding house to top of the moviemaking heap in barely year, and then disappeared. You’ll enjoy this one even more if you’re old enough to remember Eve Arden.

“The Horse of a Different Color (That You Rode In On)” is another case of real people and fictional events. Manny, the fifth and oldest Marx Brother, who — in the story — changed his name to “Marks” and lived to 107, reminisces here with an interviewer (when he’s only 103) about his life in the great days of vaudeville, just before the talkies killed it off, and about the greatest variety acts ever. Except that his memories slide gradually into revelations of a Catholic/Masonic conspiracy involving a pantomime horse. As is often the case with Howard’s stories, the warp of the narrative is a fascinating lesson in social history, but the woof this time beats the pants off Dan Brown. Take Peter Pan, add the HMS Pinafore and Dick Deadeye, then toss in every pirate fantasy trope you can think of, including the Flying Dutchman, and season with a pinch of steampunk, and you have “Avast, Abaft!” which the author says he had been carrying around in his head since the late ’60s, waiting for a chance to use it. The humor is far from subtle (at least for the literarily aware) and the result is a thorough hoot.

“The King of Where-I-Go,” which was shortlisted for the Hugo and may be the best thing in this superior volume, sounds autobiographical at first — especially if, like me, you’re a fellow Texan of nearly the same age, and you know some of the facts of Howard’s life. But it isn’t, not quite. What it is, is a rumination on growing up in the South in the ’50s, the Age of Polio, and on brothers and sisters. And time travel. “Kindermarchen,” on the other hand, is a rather short, rather lightweight retelling of Hansel and Gretel, with the addition of a ogre army. It’s okay, but you can see the ending coming a mile away.

“Frogskin Cap” was written for the first-ever anthology of stories set in Jack Vance’s “Dying Earth” future, and it’s the most outright science-fictional story in the volume. Quietly poetic and some very nice descriptive writing about the last Curator of the Museum of Man. The Great War of a century ago turns up in a number of Howard’s stories, and “Ninieslando” is based on one of that conflict’s oddest facts — that there was a whole community of men, the lost and deserted from both sides, living between the trenches, in and under No Man’s Land, surviving on abandoned equipment and rations. But only a very original mind would think to add to this the artificial language Esperanto, which it was hoped at the turn of the 20th century would help lead to world peace. It’s an amazing and very affecting story, and with a slightly horrific ending.

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