Reviews of short story collections are among the hardest to write for me. From trying to sort out which stories are my favorites and why to exploring the themes that are prevalent (or not) between the tales to the stark realization that despite my personal love for the short fiction over the long form that is so dominant in fictional writing these days that not so many readers will share my love for this art form, I am almost always left believing that my story collection reviews fall well short of explaining just why it is so important for readers to consider this still vital literary form.
Although most might not realize it from all the multi-volume novels being generated and promoted these days, speculative fiction short fiction has long played a major role in shaping our perceptions. From the early pulp fiction days of Cordwainer Smith, H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard, these short fictions have created enduring images of futuristic civilizations in decline, ancient horrors lying at the bottom of the sea, or of noble savages wearing loincloths and wielding huge broadswords. In recent years, stories by J.G. Ballard and Gene Wolfe, to name just a couple of many talented storytellers that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, have used the spec fic short form to explore issues in concentrated, experimental pieces that are just as original, just as thought-provoking, just as much fun as they were when they were first published. They have stood the test of time and now serve as exemplary models for why speculative fiction in all its forms is a vital and essential part of Western (and increasingly, non-Western) modern literature.
This tradition has continued down to the early 21st century. From the weird, offbeat novellas and novelettes of a Kelly Link or Jeffrey Ford to the lyrical pieces of a Catherynne M. Valente, the short form has continued to demonstrate a vitality that belies its relative obscurity in spec fic talk. There is a new name for me to add to my personal pantheon of great spec fic (hell, just great in general) short fiction writers. That name is Richard Parks.
Worshipping Small Gods is his second collection after The Ogre's Wife: Fairy Tales for Grownups. I was made aware of this 2007 collection when I read Jeffrey Ford's blog and saw a very favorable commentary upon it. I was curious and placed an order a couple of weeks ago and bought this collection. I was not disappointed at all.
Like the authors that I mentioned above, Parks uses a lot of different techniques and styles to write his stories. They are not traditional plot-heavy tellings for the most part, but instead exploration of all-too-human characters placed in some very odd and often turbulent surroundings. One of my personal favorites from this collection, the opening "Kallisti," is a retelling of the ancient Greek story of the Trojan shepherd Paris and the goddesses Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite who have sought to bribe him so that he can (as appointed by Zeus) present one of them with the golden apple that the goddess of discord, Eris, had tossed at a wedding banquet of the gods. Instead of concentrating on the three goddess vying for a title that the three admit is empty outside of personal vanity, Parks concentrates on a conflict of desires and impulses that both Paris and Eris herself share. Parks turns old conventions of fate and destiny on their heads in framing this interaction between the confused Paris and the equally conflicted Eris. There is a sort of beauty that is shown as these two struggle for the little bit of wiggle room in a preordained war of death and destruction. Eris is not just a castaway starter of an oracle's proclamation of war between the Greek cities and Troy, but is as much a victim and manipulator of events as is Paris. But at the risk of not "spoiling" the story as much as "revealing" why it is a representative sample of Parks' work, I quote from near the end of "Kallisti":
"Gods and mortals alike make mistakes, Eris. I should have given the apple to you."
Eris just stared for several moments. "But why?" she finally asked. "Because I made it?"
Paris smiled at her. "Most artisans do not own what they make. No, Eris. Because you never meant to harm me, and never played me false. There's beauty in that, and more than I had sense to realize. I should have given you the apple because it belongs to you by right. Kallisti. The Fairest."
For a moment Eris simply looked at him. "You would give the apple to me, the one responsible for all your misery?"
"Yes," Paris said. "I would."
"Mortals are such fools," she said, but it didn't sound like an insult this time...
This scene summarizes so much human emotion in just a few words that I believe it epitomizes the rest of Parks' stories. Over a week later, I still am pondering some of the messages contained in an eleven page story. Thankfully, the other stories live up to the promise of "Kallisti" and even further its exploration of human conflict, desire, and our tendencies to find ourselves worshipping the small, most picayune of objects at the price of our connections with our own selves and with each other. There was not a single story that did not resonate with me, each illustrating various principles of humanity and our dependencies as to make the collection itself feel like they were all cut from one empathetic cloth.
Summary: Richard Parks' Worshipping Small Gods is a collection of 14 stories, most of which have been released in various genre magazines, with three new stories included. Each of these tales touches upon our desires, fears, and hatreds in a way that makes each story stand out as its own creation but yet with some common threads that connect it to each other. This collection is very highly recommended, especially for those who enjoy the short fictions of a Jeffrey Ford, Catherynne M. Valente, or a Tim Pratt.
Release Date: May 1, 2007 (US), Paperback.