Tangent Reviews

Danger Music, by Stepan Chapman

from Tangent #17, Winter 1996

Has this ever happened to you? You see a painting that you admire and set off to find the artist at the next big Arts and Craft Show. But when you get to the booth, you see dozens of works, elbow to elbow, jostling one another with a style so powerful that no one individual piece stands out and declares itself. You feel vaguely disappointed to not find anything you like, because there's obviously talent on display, but still, you walk away without purchasing anything, wondering what exactly went wrong.

Stepan Chapman writes short, intense, fabulations. They're called "Fables" on the cover, but they actually encompass tall tales, bar stories, myths, harangues; devices by a clever storyteller who desperately and directly wants our ear. No characters here to identify with and dilute the message, no careful creation of the artificialities of plot. Just an author/narrator grabbing our collars and hauling on our sleeves so that we do not turn away from his outrage over the horrors of our world. They include auto detailers, the EPA, capitalism, the atomic bomb, humanity itself. For these "Fables" are stories about the follies of humankind, not cautionary pieces exactly, but the voice of despair wailed by someone who has looked upon his own kind too long and too well.

Tellers of fables have always had a jaundiced view of their fellow beings. What are the tales of an Aesop or a Grimm brother but cynical glimpses of a world in which trickery and deceit are the prime values and the redeeming features few? That's also their weakness. Fables quickly become repetitive, no matter how varied the subject. And without an understanding of what the author approves of, what he celebrates, who he feels does right, the tales are simply unsatisfying; half of a portrait instead of a whole.

Anyway, I can only offer the unhelpful advice that the pieces I liked best were the ones that came closest to having real people in them, drew nearest to being true stories, or extended the finest visions and imagery. Nema, the ghost of a Japanese fishing town, "The Sister City" to Nagasaki and Hiroshima, was a dazzling concept. Rather than wallow in its despairing view of human nature, "The Sick Ox and the Stairways of Causation" balanced its starkness with uplift and understanding. "The Hermit and the Fallen Sky" had the clarity of hallucination along with a rare closing line that snapped the story shut. And the (Kafkaesque, dare I say) "Prison of Sod" offers a chilling look at the emptiness of life, or is it a look inside the brain of someone who lives so vividly in the land of despair?

Half of these short works (all are under 1500 words) have been published before, in magazines in and out of the sf field. I would bet that they work far the better in isolation, for Chapman is a writer of talent, with a style and worldview that is his own. But by placing his stories edge to edge, this chapbook highlights his weaknesses better than his strengths. It's an ironic reward, but then, what else would such a writer as Chapman expect?

Copyright 1996 by Steve Carper

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