Though I read far more novels than short stories, I was first introduced to World Fantasy Award-winning author Patricia McKillip’s work through her fantastic collection Wonders of the Invisible World (my review). I was utterly enchanted by her spare but beautiful prose, characters, and themes and also impressed by the vast range of her stories: not only were they a mixture of genres including high fantasy, contemporary fantasy, a fairy tale retelling, and science fiction but they also ran the gamut from lighthearted to serious. Regardless of category, wit and insight shone through her fiction, and I’ve wanted to read everything she’s written since—whether a novel or another collection like her most recent, Dreams of Distant Shores.
Despite being similar in length to Wonders of the Invisible World, Dreams of Distant Shores has fewer stories with the two longest comprising about two thirds of the entire book. It contains seven stories, three of which are new to this collection, an essay on writing high fantasy, and an afterword by Peter S. Beagle. (Though interesting, I did find “Writing High Fantasy” an odd choice for this particular collection, which features stories set in some variation of our world.) Since some of these stories have been published before and therefore may be familiar, the table of contents is as follows:
- “Mer” (Brand new story)
- “The Gorgon in the Cupboard”
- “Which Witch”
- “Edith and Henry Go Motoring” (Brand new story)
- “Alien” (Brand new story)
- “Something Rich and Strange”
- “Writing High Fantasy”
- “Dear Pat” (Afterword by Peter S. Beagle)
Far and away my favorite story in Dreams of Distant Shores is one of the two lengthiest, “The Gorgon in the Cupboard,” which focuses on artists and the women who model for their portraits. It alternates between the perspective of one person from each of these groups: Harry, a painter, and Jo, a destitute woman who becomes the face of Harry’s work-in-progress. Like most of the men and a few of the women in their artistic circle, Harry is infatuated with Aurora, another painter’s wife and model. Though he dreams of painting Aurora himself, he doesn’t believe he could since her gaze always petrifies him as though she is Medusa herself.
After returning to his studio one afternoon dreaming of a great masterpiece that will make Aurora notice him, Harry remembers his portrait of Persephone, left unfinished after the disappearance of the model. The head is missing a mouth so he paints one, although he cannot use it: anyone would recognize those lips as Aurora’s. He hides it in the back of a cupboard, intending to forget about it, but he can’t ignore it when the mouth begins speaking to him. His desire for inspiration called forth the mythical figure he thought of when he saw Aurora: Medusa, who wants him to find a model and make her his masterwork.
Meanwhile, Jo is living in the streets among people so desperate they deliberately commit property damage in hopes of going to a jail cell with amenities such as food and a bed. She lost her mother and a child, and she recently fled a job yet again because of a predatory man. Starving and unable to find work, Jo remembers the time she posed for a young man painting a portrait of Persephone and tries to find him, as he paid well and was not unkind. When Jo succeeds in finding Harry, he doesn’t recognize her from before but he does know he’s found a woman with the “terrible, devastating beauty” to be his Medusa.
McKillip’s prose is gorgeous as usual, and she blends art and myth wonderfully in this story about painters so swept up in their grand visions that they do not see below the surface—nor do they want to, for fear that it will break the spell of their craft. Even though Harry is kinder than most of the men in his artistic circle, he can be rather oblivious, only hearing what he’s been told and missing the bigger picture of what’s going on around him, particularly how the worship of Aurora is affecting all of them—including the woman everyone has put upon a pedestal.
Part of what I love about this (and much of McKillip’s work that I’ve read) is that even though the society may try to relegate women to the background, McKillip does not. Jo has her own story, Medusa has her own voice, and though the other women are not as central, they are given more of the spotlight than any male artist other than Harry. The focus given to Jo and the other women add more dimension to “The Gorgon in the Cupboard”; had this story only belonged to Harry, it may have seemed as though it was about a man learning that (surprise!) women are real people too. (Although I think it is still possible to view his role that way, that doesn’t ring true to me since it seems more that he is laser-focused on his work since he has more meaningful interactions with the women in the circle than the men. I viewed it more as showing that while the men have the luxury of remaining lost in their dreams and fully absorbed in their art, the women do not have the luxury of safely ignoring the real world, and as such, are the ones who see the world more clearly.)
None of the other stories were as remarkable as “The Gorgon in the Cupboard,” although I could appreciate aspects of all of them and found most of them worth reading. I had mixed feelings about the novella “Something Rich and Strange,” the longest story in the entire collection. It contains some beautiful writing, and the artist Megan is a great character with admirable courage and determination. However, what could have been a fantastic tale was marred by being far too long for the amount of story, and I found much of it dull. I also couldn’t help comparing it to The Changeling Sea—although the two are quite different in many ways, they do share some common elements including the theme of the allure of the sea—and The Changeling Sea is far better in every way (my review).
The rest of the stories are much shorter than “The Gorgon in the Cupboard” and “Something Rich and Strange,” which comprise about 25% and 40% of the book respectively. Since there are only five others, I’ll just briefly cover each:
“Weird” is, well, weird. A couple discusses the weirdest thing that happened to one of them while holed up in a bathroom eating out of gold wire wastebaskets and soap dishes. It’s perfectly entertaining and I’m sure what was going on outside was left intentionally ambiguous to fit with the title, but too much was left unexplained for my taste.
“Mer” follows a witch who just wants to sleep but ends up getting caught up in events involving a stolen wooden mermaid and a religious order of women dedicated to protecting cormorants from idiots. This was one of the lighter stories, and it’s my favorite after “The Gorgon in the Cupboard.”
“Witch Which” is the tale of a witch struggling to communicate with her new familiar, a crow who is trying to warn her about evil when she’s trying to concentrate on performing with her band. I didn’t think I was going to like it at first, but it was a cute story and I thought having some scenes from the perspective of the crow Cawley in addition to the witch Hazel made it better.
“Edith and Henry Go Motoring” is a story about two people who end up in a mysterious place where they see mysterious visions. Like “Weird,” it’s too vague for my taste, but it’s also less compelling overall and is my least favorite story in this collection.
In “Alien” a woman and her family are concerned about her grandmother, who claims that she has been visited by aliens—and her grandmother is frustrated that no one listens to her but assumes she must be bored or drinking. It’s a cute, readable story, but it’s not terribly memorable (although I did like Grandmother Abby!).
Even though I don’t think it quite measures up to Wonders of the Invisible World, I do still believe that Dreams of Distant Shores is well worth reading. Each story showcases McKillip’s skill as an author, and “The Gorgon in the Cupboard” is an impactful tale full of depth—and since it’s about a quarter of the collection, this story alone makes it a must read.
My Rating: 7/10
Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.