15 December 2016

A perpetual-enjoyment collection: 400 Boys and 50 More, by Marc Laidlaw

Though they’re rarer than postage stamps who whistle, you might know a writer, and wish to give that creature a present as where-have-you-been-all-my-life loved, once tasted, as a perpetual-chew toy. Or you might know a reader who craves collections large enough to indulge all through the nights. If you’re really lucky, those rarities combine to be you. If so, there’s a way you can treat yourself without breaking your virtual pocketbook, and do it the instant-gratification way. In fact, I urge you to discover this most exciting collection--one that could have been in hiding, so little has it been noticed.

I hate that 400 Boys and 50 More: Short Stories by Marc Laidlaw is not in the type of edition it deserves--an Everyman’s Library Collected Stories--even though in this case, it would be Some Collected Stories, and still be as thick and heavy as a corned beef with all the fat trimmed off before it’s sold.

“Well over a quarter of a million words, written over approximately 40 years” this truly is 50+ stories, each one carefully chosen (and not all previously published). Laidlaw has lightly spiced and larded the sections, describing each stage of his journey as a writer. Normally I'd prefer my head to be slowly ripped off than read ‘a writer’s life’ stuff. But here it's a treat, especially when he fails to brag when he could have, and instead, let you in on his greatest ambition at one stage: sleep. So modest, you'll want him to have revealed more. Funny and inspiring, including his lesson in how to be disreputable (typically, he doesn't admit to his success). But these bits are just a small part of this collection. The meat is top-of-the-line stuff that first appeared in Omni (a you-gotta-read: "The Diane Arbus Suicide Portfolio"), The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (ditto: "The Ghost Penny Post" pub'd by MFSF in 2016), Nightmare Magazine, Rudy Rucker's Flurb, Subterranean Press Magazine, and some of the most lauded Ellen Datlow anthologies. Pinnacle publications and editors.

But who cares about history? The question is: Do the stories work now? And how! The thing I like best about Laidlaw won’t fit into one 'is'. 1) He’s a wet dishcloth to his stories. They rule. So whatever voice the story is, it most assuredly is. If that philosophy was good enough for Hans Andersen, I reckon it’s good enough for any writer. Certainly this reader loves it in a collection, as it makes each story a new find. 2) Whether the tone is baroque or contemporary, the tale *moves*. Though the stories aren’t shallow by any means, they are stories that professional storytellers could have waxed fat on.  3) Laidlaw's horror hasn't a whiff of falseness. It's real and deep and sophisticated and thoughtful as philosophers in hell. One example is his brilliant "The Boy Who Followed Lovecraft", which should be in many anthologies. 4) When Laidlaw's stories are funny, the humour is gloriously under the top. He does deadpan so well ("Mars Will Have Blood", "Pokky Man"!), I can hear the ghost of Jack Benny applauding. But don’t worry, anyone born ten minutes ago. Laidlaw should appeal to old, young, and immature enough to enjoy anything marked 'for adults'. And oh. did I mention that many of the stories' titles are treats in themselves? Get the book and see what I mean. And if you think as I do, then cry out as I have been for a while, for an omnibus collection of his Gorlen and Spar stories, my favourite contemporary high-fantasy characters and tales. They’d make a terrific movie series, too.