Locus Magazine

June 2003 Issue 509, Volume 50, Number 6

Undertow of Small Town Dreams Review

by Edward Bryant

I love pleasant surprises and, in this business, one of the best pleasant surprises is finding evidence of a new writer worth reading and following.  Thus I wish to bring to your attention a slender but handsomely produced collection of short stories called, evocatively enough, The Undertow of Small Town Dreams, by John Weagly.

John Weagly has held down the usual run of freelance writerly jobs, just like most of us.  He’s had considerable experience as a playwright and as a laborer in the specialty press vineyards.  According to his bio notes, he’s presently a deck hand working on sightseeing boats on the Chicago River.  He’s also a member of that most peculiar substantial minority demographic in horror and dark fantasy, professional wrestling fandom.

By the evidence presented in the 14 brief stories in The Undertow of Small Town Dreams, he’s an emerging writer of some accomplished work, and even more highly promising fiction looming on the near horizon.  The collection’s subtitled Stories of Currie Valley, the eponymous town being a small, relatively isolated hamlet in Illinois, mentioned early on as being the westernmost point of the winding eastern shore of the Mississippi.  More important, it’s located somewhere on the edges of Twain’s Territories, just downstream from Bradbury country, a touch east of, oh, that distinctive Nina Kiriki Hoffman map.

There are 14 tales here, two original to the volume, the rest collected from modest venues that will be unfamiliar to many.  The book is lovely, front by a digitally manipulated cover assembled by John and Geri Everson.  But inside is what counts the most.

The tonal keys to Weagly’s stories are whimsy and both the light and dark fantastic.  There’s a sense of Midwestern tall tale at work, along with a dash of the unexpectedly surreal.  When the stories work to full advantage, they overcome what at first appears to be sheer insubstantiality.  The effect can be pleasingly delayed, a ticking time bomb to disturb the reader’s thoughts long after setting the book down.  The less effective stories are, well, fun but fluff.  Weagly seems to be still in the process of learning a sense of tonal balance; knowing when to make his points lightly, even elliptically.  Occasionally his hold on his material slips and he employs a ballpeen hammer in place of tools a mite more delicate. 

He’s at the top of his form in a story like “Mr. Bones Speaks to the Bright round Moon”, a young guy coming-of-age fable about three Currie Valley high school recent graduates who, concerned about their respective futures, buy a couple of illicit six-packs and got out to drink their beer and talk at the foot of Mr. Bones, a skeletal, anomalously tall three that’s a perennial local landmark.  Mr. Bones is so tall, his crown is permanently hidden in fog.  When the narrator and one of his friends decide to scale Mr. Bones, a mystery, in the classic sense, generates.  Author Weagly skirts perilously close to sheer sentimentality in this one, yet manages to pull back at all the right points. 

Smilin’ Jack’s Donut Shack” is more problematic.  This is one of several tales narrated by Buster Bash, seven-foot-tall retired professional wrestler who’s moved back to his home town to run a café.  When the beloved proprietor of the local donut shop dies, her nearest and dearest survivors find themselves somewhat confused about just what death and grieving rituals are most appropriate.  Oddly, for a gentle and humane story, the grating moments come with some dubious science bits.  I don’t think the author’s going to be writing for Analog in the near future.  Then there’s “Ruffled Feathers”, a Freaks/Dark Carnival-ish romp that depends for dubious effect on one of the oldest Woody Allen jokes in existence.

Ex-wrestler Buster Bash’s best moments in the book come in “Gorgeous George and the Ring Rat”, a story that’s both a wryly affectionate to the eponymous classic grappler and a marvelous example of quirky relationships.  Poor Buster calls home from work one day to check his answering machine, only to discover he’s talking in real-time to a female voice apparently belonging to a woman who claims she’s broken into his house for reasons of sheer intellectual curiosity.  The disembodied relationship grows stranger and continues from there.

One of my other favorite continuing characters is Simon, a guy who probably reads a lot of science fiction from the library, but hasn’t yet discovered fandom.  In “The Brain That Wouldn’t Dance”, a bored Simon hooks up a bunch of fresh calves’ brains he bought from the local meat market to a Lionel train transformer and tries an experiment in reanimation.  In “Revolt of the Zombie Housecat”, Simon attempts to alleviate his loneliness by obtaining a stray kitty from the local animal shelter and trying to create a loyal zombie companion through voodoo.  He names the feline Subject A but can’t bring himself to do anything dire to the cat.  This is definitely not Jeffrey Dahmer material.  Finally he attempts to influence the cat through telepathic control, and I think you ailurophiles in the audience can guess how successful that is.  Weird, but affecting.

That last is a phrase that applies to much of The Undertow of Small Town DreamsAs I indicated earlier, John Weagly is definitely a writer to watch.  This collection isn’t any Winesburg, Ohio.  Occasionally heavy-handed, more frequently delicate, manic or simply touching, it’s far, far stranger.