DAW, $7.99, ISBN 978-0-7564-0653-0
Boondocks Fantasy sells itself, at least as per the introduction by Jean Rabe, as a change from urban fantasy in that the stories here have urban fantasy tropes but are set in a more rustic setting. This has me thinking of Buffy in farmer overalls stabbing vampires with a hay fork, but it turns out that the anthology is a mixed bag of fantasy stories that feel like… well, fantasy stories that have been around for at least several decades now.
Gene Wolfe starts out with The Giant. Our protagonist is the partner of a woman who told him disquieting stories of the woo-woo kind in her rustic neighborhood. He drops by one fine day, and decides to scout the neighborhood to see for himself how weird things can be. Any fan of those fantasy horror anthology TV shows in the 1980’s, like The Twilight Zone (of which some of those episodes, interestingly enough, were based on sci-fi and fantasy short stories), can tell what will happen next. This one starts out like a whimsical tale, only to abruptly turn into a very dark tale towards its end. The length of this story means that the mood shift is too abrupt for my liking. Perhaps a few dozen pages more would have allowed the tale to feel more developed and whole.
Timothy Zahn’s Protection is more like what the anthology promised: a shapeshifter and a mermaid work to take down a bunch of gangsters that choose the wrong bucolic neighborhood dump to flex their muscles. This one is a pleasant read, although it’s not exactly memorable.
Chris Pierson’s Lake People sees the heroine and her girlfriend visit the girlfriend’s aunt, out of concern because that woman is making wooden statuettes of elves non-stop. The woman claims that these statuettes are the only means of protection against the strange beings that emerge from the lake near her home. Of course, the woman’s niece is too modern to believe such nonsense, and I’m sure you can guess what will happen during the denouement of this story. This one is a well-written story, it feels complete and, despite being too predictable for its own good, it’s basically the first “whole” story in this anthology.
And then we have Cat People by Mickey Zacker Reichert, which is basically the story of cat people coming to the help of the hero and his wife after an accident destroyed their farm and life savings. The moral of the story is that you can screw up by not updating your insurance, but if you are nice to cats, chances are the cat people will be nice to you and help you back. This story is okay, but it’s something that I’d file under “So what?”
Steven Savile’s The Horned Man shows that winter stag men in the forests are all randy horny rapists that don’t look left and right before dashing across the road. Let’s move on.
Patrick McGilligan’s The Feud is a darkly humorous tale of two families of hillbilly zombies, with one from each clan feeling that they are in their own Romeo and Juliet story. It’s cute while it lasts, which isn’t long, unfortunately.
Raymond Benson goes down the retro road with The Devil Is a Gentlemen, which is another “the devil is a PI” tale that sees the protagonist tracking down a serial killer in some rural trailer park area. I’ve read many stories like this one, and it isn’t anything special to stand out in any way.
Dylan Birtolo goes all solemn and gloomy in Eternal Vigilance, where our protagonist stays watch to ensure that a fiend trapped in a lake will never be set free. This one isn’t bad, but I can see the twist coming from a mile away. The story isn’t even trying to be suspenseful, more the pity.
Elizabeth A Vaughan tells the story of a witch who would make a good supervisor of a juvenile detention hall in The Taste of Strawberry Jam. Like the other stories that came before it, this one is readable, but once it is over (and it’s quickly over), it will be easily forgotten.
It’s the same with DL Stever’s The Storyteller. This one, about the protagonist reminiscing about a woman who always had a story to tell, tries and fails to build up a “twist” in such a way that makes it a something that even M Night Shyamalan would reject.
Anita Ensal shows that even elderly women could be smug Mary Sue types as Big Mams take a trip to the city in Being Neighborly, to demonstrate boondocks folks know more than everyone else and they are frankly superior in so many ways that I am actually glad to see this story end. Big Mams can go choke on a turnip.
Anton Strout is next with Marfa, as a city boy visiting his parents in the Texan countryside discovers that there are dangers of the spooky kind on the road, and it pays to listen to one’s mother about such things. This one is appropriately spooky, but it’s too short to leave much of an impact.
Aware by CJ Henderson wants everyone to know that television kills ignorance, which in turns create a world full of strife, and therefore, we will need the help of aliens to help us restore ourselves into a state of blissful ignorance so that our lives would be better. Or something. This is a long-winded and rather pointless way of telling me to watch less TV, and I believe there are better examples of “Alien incoming!” tales from those The Twilight Zone days. I’m especially fond of To Serve Man, which at least inserts a humorous dark twist to the whole thing. Anyway, let’s just keep moving.
Kelly Swails’s Sully’s Solution has a guy in a trailer park who is not running a meth lab, but rather, a lab for concoctions that solve everyone’s problems. Is this the author’s way of insisting that boondocks chemists have the right to run a lab without interference from the law? Too bad I’d have forgotten that this story exists before I can get to sign that petition.
Trophy Wife by Vicki Johnson-Steger tells the story of a horny hillbilly bloke who catch a fish, only to have it turn into a hot woman that he falls in love with. Alas, she soon tires of him. This one is also short and forgettable.
Linda P Baker’s Fairies Weep Not is all about saving nature from the evils of modern civilization, but this is a beautifully written tale that actually makes me feel a little choked up inside. After the last few stories, this is a marvelous read.
John Lambshead’s Siren Tears is a delightful tale of a snobby and morally bankrupt city guy who travels to the seaside only to discover that that the tales he pooh-poohs as local superstitions may be far more real than he could ever imagine. The tone and the unabashed lack of preachy overtones make this one my favorite story of the whole bunch.
Jay Lake’s Jefferson West is a historical tale featuring William Clark and Meriwether Lewis. I can’t get over the premise – there is a gate to the Garden of Eden in the Missouri region, and the USA is, apparently, the center of all existence. Okay, whatever. I’ll show myself out the door.
Wait, there’s more? Oh yes, Brian A Hopkins’s Black Rider, which is a tale of a biker haunted by the memories of his lost beloved. I had reservations when I started this one, but by the end, I find myself liking this one a lot. It’s actually romantic in a surreal kind of emo funk.
Finally, Donald J Bingle’s Rural Route is like something out of The X-Files – that episode with the chupacabra comes to mind – mixed with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. This one has an intriguing premise, but the abrupt ending ruins everything.
Boondocks Fantasy has a nice selling point, but it fails to capitalize on what it claims to be, by having stories that are too short to be memorable. I’d have thought the authors involved would contribute stories with new twists on common urban fantasy tropes, but instead, these stories feel like watered down rehash of short stories that have been around for decades now. Ultimately, the greatest failing of this anthology is its promising me innovation and freshness when it actually has none of any to offer.