Book Review: Over the Darkened Landscape

Canadian fiction, speculative fiction, Fairwood Press, fantasy, SF

Derryl Murphy’s collection is stellar.

When I go to writing/fan conventions I usually try to pick up a couple of books or magazines to purview. Last year, at When Worlds Collide in Calgary I picked up Derryl Murphy’s reprint collection Over the Darkened Lanscape. Derryl is a fellow Canadian writer and I know him somewhat (translation: like many writers, we’ve chatted writing over a drink or two). But I wasn’t sure I knew his writing. As well as Derryl, I wanted to help support Patrick Swenson’s Fairwood Press, out of Washington, who has always done a quality product.

The trade size book has an intriguing cover. I don’t know how it was made but I’ve never felt a cover that was so velvety, almost like skin. It holds up well to greasy paw prints as well. The cover art is not necessarily dark or even speculative in the SF/fantasy sense, and in a way it reflects Murphy’s stories perfectly. As well, this guy with a distorted face is sliced by a canvas that he peers over. When you read Derryl’s coven of stories you’ll find they are poignant perspectives of delving into a very human psyche, sometimes in extraordinary circumstances, sometimes in that visceral way where life tugs on you revealing its glories and sorrows.

I’ll try not to give away too much about the contents so you can enjoy the slow reveal of them. Murphy does a deft blending of science with the human machine and this is seen in the unique perspective of “Body Solar.” “Last Call” is not really speculative except for imagining what you would say to your wife while in space. Very poignant and one of the stories I had read before. “Frail Orbits” is a sad and tender handling about used up veterans. “Voyage to the Moon” is probably one of my favorites for a very fresh way of handling a fairy tale as science fiction. I won’t say more but even that might be too much. I really enjoyed the deft new twists.

“More Painful than the Dreams of Other Boys” deals with a world where kids don’t always grow up and one who does; growing pains always hurt. “The Day Michael Visited Happy Lake” is another tale about the reality we give our favorite childhood tales. One of the more disturbing tales, another that I had read before, “Clink Clank” examines a future where government farms out the feeding of prisoners and what children who don’t listen to their parents discover. It’s a cautionary tale of how one can place a command in someone’s thoughts. By saying “don’t touch that” we can no longer think of anything else but touching that object.

Louis Wain, H.G. Wells, paranormal, horror, speculative fiction

Wain’s paintings grew increasingly more demonic.

The collection covers vast reaches from the earliest times, to our future travels in space. But “Ancients of Earth” truly links the past and the present with a teacher in Dawson City at the time of the Gold Rush, who tries to save an ancient find, and is targeted by those ancient memories. A careful blend again of science and magic. “The Cats of Bethlem” begins with the true tale of H.G. Wells intervening in the commitment of Victorian artist Louis Wain to a sanitarium Wain was obsessed with drawing cats and it’s now believed that as he aged he grew more schizophrenic while his paintings of anthropomorphized cats grew more abstract and wild.  But what if….

Other tales take Canadian history and put it into a Gordian knot. “Canadaland” is a very tongue in cheek look at our (Canada’s) future. While the Canadians reading it will truly get the nuances, there are ample narrator-biased footnotes. Well worth a trip through our cultural foibles. “Northwest Passage” is a lonely tale of fighting the frozen winter environment that holds its ghosts close. “Cold Ground” travels into the vestiges of the Riel rebellion from the point of view of its surviving sorcerers. The title piece of the book, “Over the Darkened Landscape” was probably one of my other favorites with MacKenzie King (Canada’s 10th prime minister) and his talking dog who solve mysteries, including what happened to the missing painter Tom Thomson, who was one of the famous Group of Seven. Here, the painting is the medium, in all senses of the word.

These stories are both historic and speculative, fantastical and empathic. If I could choose only one word I would say that Derryl Murphy’s tales are visceral in pulling you along the emotional ride of  humans in odd or life threatening situations. Ingenuity, acceptance and compassion flavor Over the Darkened Landscape. I didn’t know what to expect originally but I found the stories resonated for a long time with me. It’s an excellent collection well worth reading. I’m not the only one of this opinion. Murphy’s collection has been nominated for this year’s prestigious Sunburst Award. Check it out.

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Filed under art, Culture, fairy tales, fantasy, history, horror, Publishing, science fiction, Writing

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