14 September 2004

Bittersweet Creek by Christopher Rowe

Christopher Rowe and Gwenda Bond recently got married, and so this is a perfectly good time for me to say nice things about Christopher's Small Beer Press chapbook, Bittersweet Creek and Other Stories. (I can also point out that Gwenda has posted a new interview with one of the creative geniuses behind Small Beer Press, Kelly Link over at Edward Champion's Return of the Reluctant blog.)

Christopher Rowe has been publishing strange stories about fantastic events in the Southern USA for a few years now, and I have not been quiet about my admiration for his recent story "The Voluntary State", a story that is not only the best Rowe I've read, but unquestionably one of the best science fiction stories published so far this year. Bittersweet Creek contains earlier stories, less ambitious stories, but stories that are nonetheless satisfying and sometimes haunting.

One of the satsifying things about this collection is how well the different pieces work together, how well the tales build off of one another. Each story has been selected carefully, some of them share characters, and all of them are set in Kentucky or Appalachia. "The Dreaming Mountains", a short fable, serves as an axis for the other four stories to circle around, and those stories take place in the fantastical past and the mythic future of the region. Many of the characters take their names from the Bible, and biblical elements are present through most of the book. The final story, "Men of Renown", even brings back the Nephilim in a biblical science fantasy story quite different from the Left Behind series.

What makes the book worth buying, though (other than its classy design and low price), are the three stories originally published in Realms of Fantasy, a magazine that consistently hides thoughtful, subtle work behind the most hideous cover art seen outside a porn shop. "Baptism at Bitter Creek", "Sally Harpe", and "Kin to Crows" are each fine, accomplished stories unto themselves, but taken as a whole they are remarkable. Each is mysterious, and each ends so ambiguously as to skirt meaninglessness, but as a group their mysteries intertwine, and what we end up with is not so much a group of good stories, but a quilt of emotions, events, and characters that is greater than any of its single squares. These are stories that feel like legends and history, daydreams and nightmares.

"Sally Harpe" and "Kin to Crows" are both violent stories that don't feel violent, because the violent events gather meaning even when they are ghastly and unnecessary. The suffering of the characters expands beyond any one moment, blood leaks through time, and scars become geography. It's a peculiar way of writing for someone in our era, but the stories have a coherence beyond their plots, and the strange, quiet, sometimes lonesome endings lurk in the reader's mind. Inevitably, Christopher Rowe is compared to Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, since all Southern writers are, of course, exactly alike -- but the writer whose works I think of most immediately in connection with the stories in Bittersweet Creek is Nathaniel Hawthorne, who structured some of his tales similarly, who was interested in the effect of outsider characters and fantastic events on communities, and whose sentences were quietly sharp.

Imagery, actually, is Rowe's great talent, and he keeps refining it -- witness "The Force Acting on the Displaced Body", which is a model of what an imaginative writer can accomplish. Bittersweet Creek has nothing that, individually, can compare to Rowe's most recent work, but as a whole it is satisfying and rewarding, beguiling in all the best ways.