by Richard Lupoff
published by Golden Gryphon
290 pages, 2001
Buy it online
The Chameleon's Tale
Reviewed by Claude Lalumière
There are writers who obsessively revisit the same themes and tropes; they explore the tortuous depths of their obsessions and share the results. Such writers include many of my favorites: Theodore Sturgeon, J.G. Ballard, R.A. Lafferty, Robert Silverberg, Jonathan Carroll, Jim Thompson. At the other end of this spectrum, there are chameleon-like writers who use their virtuosic technical skill and broad and deep knowledge to adopt a new voice with each new work. These include Paul Di Filippo, Garry Kilworth, Philip Kerr... and Richard Lupoff.
Lupoff's collection Claremont Tales, as suggested by the cover illustration (Lupoff serving a bizarre animal to his dinner guests -- extraterrestrials, a robot, glamorous socialites, etc. -- while a monster threateningly looms behind the author) is very much like a social gathering where various literary genres (foremost among them those of pulp origins) dangerously intermingle -- and the danger is thrilling. What impresses most in this book is Lupoff's deft ability to drift from genre to genre and slip into different narrative personae. It's astonishing to realize that these diverse tales are all the product of the same mind.
Claremont Tales is illustrated by Nicholas Jainschigg. The frontispieces he provides for each story capture the collection's diversity and the appropriate mood for the tale about to unfold. Golden Gryphon Press obviously cares about producing handsome editions and its recent releases, such as this one, have been increasingly successful in this regard.
Of the 12 stories gathered here only three disappoint, although, like the others, they do show off Lupoff's versatile range. Two of them -- "Lux Was Dead Right," an unnecessarily convoluted science-fiction short featuring rare-book collectors, and "The Child's Story," a rather mushy mock-poetic attempt at Stapledonian cosmic transcendence -- violate Lupoff's own stern rule, as stated in the book's introduction: "whatever you do, tell a story!" The other disappointment: "The Tootsie Roll Factor," a tale of gambling and magic realism, is recounted in a truly engaging and vigorous voice but is marred by its banal and cliché ending.
The nine other tales, however, are a real treat. The book opens with "Black Mist," a murder investigation on a Japanese space colony. This is one of the book's best selections: the characters are intriguing and vivid, the situation is complex and layered and the story is focused and tight. The concluding tale, "Discovery of the Ghooric Zone," combining genderbending cyberpunk, Lovecraftian lore, space travel and speculative future history, is another of the volume's best and an outstanding example of Lupoff's skill at synthesizing a broad range of seemingly disparate antecedents.
Between these finely carved bookends, Lupoff delights his readers with a rich panoply of fiction. "The Second Drug" is a sly Arthur Conan Doyle pastiche set in the 1930s starring the baroquely named detective Akhenaton Beelzebub Chase. "At Vega's Taqueria" slips from magic realism to science fiction as seamlessly as its protagonist wanders between realities. "I Don't Tell Lies" is an intimate, low-key horror piece. The Mr. Greene stories are an affectionate and satiric look at the early days of American pulp science fiction. "Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley" cleverly repositions Lovecraft's mythos in the context of late 20th-century cultism. And in "The Adventures of Mr. Tindle" Lupoff comes off as the James Thurber of the computer age.
Lupoff makes clear -- in the book's introduction and in the brief story introductions -- that he sees himself as an entertainer. His stories bear this out. However, he does not subscribe to the fallacy that entertainment must be trite and banal. He takes entertainment seriously and brings to it the full force of his talent and intelligence. He sculpts each story with love and skill, thinks up ingenious new permutations, creates a diverse array of characters and tries to provoke, as honestly as he can, a wide range of emotions. | May 2001
Claude Lalumière is a January Magazine contributing editor and the comics columnist for Black Gate. He founded popular 1990s Montreal bookshops danger! and Nebula. His published criticism can be found on his Web site.