James P. Blaylock,
In for a Penny
(Subterranean Press, 2003)

In for a Penny is a quiet but solid collection of six tales by the winner of two World Fantasy Awards for short stories and the Philip K. Dick Award for his novel Homunculus. Some of the six are, or could be interpreted as, mainstream fiction. The others include clear elements of fantasy. Even in the pure fantasies, however, James Blaylock is more concerned with human memories and emotions than with surprising supernatural events. The most poignant story, "His Own Backyard," features a return to the past with some of the atmosphere of Matheson's Somewhere in Time or Finney's Time & Again. But instead of a love affair, Blaylock examines the relationship between a son and his father and the way childhood possessions and feelings stay in our memory.

The story is typical of the collection in its concern with key personal relationships and the role of the small material things we accumulate or recall. For Blaylock, these minor treasures engender feelings of comfort and normalcy. They help us retain the past by triggering memories of people, events and moods.

Home Before Dark is another clear fantasy. A dead man reflects on his life and begins to orient himself in the afterworld, searching for what comes next. Blaylock with quick strokes describes satisfying past relationships and presents the possibility they will survive death.

The Other Side reminded me of the way Stephen King weaves fantastic plot elements into otherwise ordinary contemporary lives, but King usually lets the fantastic take over. Blaylock doesn't. He sticks with the protagonist's emotional reactions to a few highly unlikely, or perhaps supernatural events. In this story the hero begins to make the sort of coincidentally accurate predictions we've all occasionally made -- perhaps the phone rings and we know who it is even if the caller is an unlikely one. As the "coincidences" continue and become increasingly improbable, he realizes with excitement, and fear, he might go on to pick winning lottery numbers or, because he has no conscious control of the talent, inadvertently trigger airplane crashes. Most of the main characters in the collection wind up in similarly ambivalent situations.

The title story is the longest and may well be the favorite of most readers. A man buys a cheap change purse at a garage sale. It contains a favorable omen -- a penny. Soon the buyer, in for that penny, has found wealth beyond anyone's dreams. Or has he? The author puts a nicely creepy finish on the old careful-what-you-wish-for theme.

The remaining stories are equally evocative and well written. The potential reader, however, is in for $40 rather than a penny and that's steep for 175 pages -- even in a "deluxe hardcover edition." The collection is good, but not that good. Unless you're already a big fan or a collecting fanatic, I'd take my chances on a future less-expensive edition or try one of the author's earlier collections. In any event, the man does have talent.

- Rambles
written by Ron Bierman
published 4 October 2003

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