I may have mentioned, once or twice, that I generally avoid “theme” anthologies. This holds true more for poetry collections than short fiction, simply because my experience with the former has been overwhelmingly horrific. I’ve had to revise that stance vis-a-vis short fiction rather radically, in light of several such anthologies I’ve encountered recently, the latest of which is Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s The Coyote Road, in which the stories are generally excellent, with a couple of “knock-me-down” stars. Now I have to figure out why these anthologies are so impressive.Trickster gods have long fascinated me, mostly because they are the most entertaining characters in mythology. They also represent the element of chance in the universe, and point as well to an underlying truth about our conception of godhood: Tricksters are the polar points on the continuum of “good” and “bad” — heroes and villains, buffoons and sages, creators and destroyers — and most points in between. In most mythologies, if you stop to think about it, each god holds an element of Trickster (one need only think of the oracles of Apollo at Delphi, with their cryptic and often misleading utterances, to see that even this most rational and forthright of gods had a little Hermes in him). So, I have strong justification for the idea that the universe is a crap shoot and the dice are loaded.
And Trickster gods have not only engendered any number of stories in the mythology and folklore of the peoples they come from, but provide ample room for today’s storytellers to play in. The writers represented in this anthology have drawn their inspiration from all times, and pretty much all places, including a few that never existed — although they could. One of the most interesting aspects of this collection, from the folkloric standpoint, is that none of the writers felt in the least inhibited about making departures, more or less radical, from our traditional view of “gods,” “legendary heroes,” and “Tricksters.”
Of course, the stories tend to involve a mortal getting the better of the Trickster, powerful though he or she may be (and, although Tricksters are usually a male, there are enough tricksy females in this collection to keep everyone happy), which is a major element of folklore. And yet, there seem to be an infinite number of approaches to this formula. Steve Berman, in “Wagers of Gold Mountain,” brings together two Tricksters, Chinese and American, a hapless mortal (who is more clever than he lets on), an intelligent and resourceful young woman, and the American West in the days of gold rushes past and incipient Chinatowns in a story with more than its share of atmosphere and a lot of very quiet drama. Delia Sherman, in “The Fiddler of Bayou Techem” brings together classic American folklore (“The Devil and Daniel Webster,” anyone?), a fiddler on a power trip, and a foundling from the swamps who may be a Trickster herself, all wrapped up in a surreal tale marked a masterful use of dialect and a seamless narrative. Pat Murphy’s offering, “One Odd Shoe,” has the feel of a traditional Southwest Native tale, transposed to a modern archaeological dig, with an explanation for those single shoes we sometimes see alongside the road.
It’s very hard to separate out “the best” from this collection — it’s good enough that “best” becomes even more subjective than usual. I do have a couple that just stopped me cold. Katherine Vaz’ “The Chamber Music of Animals” caught me with its blend of a stuffed toy orangutan, the music of Handel, a dying son, and a beautiful story of how love can conquer the worst adversity, even long-distance. It also happens to be one of the most inventive and original stories I’ve read in a long time. Will Shetterly’s “Black Rock Rules,” on the other hand, is one of those stories that had my head reverberating with constant flashes of recognition, sometimes from other stories, sometimes from life, and still maintained its own very strong uniqueness through it all. It also happens to be one of those that brings us the full 360 view of the Trickster. It’s really choice.
There are a lot more stories in this book, with a full range of moods and messages, some poetic and melancholy, some fast and funny, some downright strange (and I mean that in the best way). Datlow and Windling deserve their reputation as anthologists par excellence. As a group, these little gems — all solid stories, all with an edge — compose one of those anthologies that continually force me to reevaluate my take on “themes.” All to the good, I think.