The stories in this anthology open an ephemeral portal onto the paranormal where sometimes – but not always – something supernatural slithers. Some of the creations we glimpse through half-closed eyes are awful and evil; others rather more whimsical and wistful. Like the first collection in this series, UM2 presents a dozen short stories by different authors offering different interpretations along the anthology’s theme. The majority are rooted in the modern world and bring the 21st century into fleeting contact with legends and fables from a variety of cultures and countries. Stories like’ For the Memory of Jane’ almost ache with a yearning to return to the old ways – or at least, not to let them be entirely forgotten by old minds in modern times.
The opening story in the collection is, as you’d expect from Tanith Lee, an accomplished if old-fashioned spooky story, one which brings a touch of the repulsive to an established legend. It starts the anthology at a gentle pace, understated and deliberate in its delivery, leaving other authors to ramp up the tension, the pace and the action as the collection progresses.
A haunted seaside pier borrows a theme from an old Quatermass series – the one about how modern monuments tend to be built in places of old power. That concept was hardly new when rehashed for the TV show, and is inventively applied here. That story has the feel of being one of a series itself; a pair of travelling ghostbusters / exorcists going where the spirits lead them.
‘How To Get Ahead In Avatising’ is an exercise in arch observation and ironic commentary, offering an occult explanation for how the talent-free somehow become celebrities and persons of influence. In this tale a gasping starlet gets her come-uppance. If only it happened in real life…
Creatures of myth and magic feature in every single story, from a lovelorn water nymph to spring-heeled jack. Sometimes the critters are unambiguously evil but – as in Trapped In The Web – their interactions with certain humans are benign or even helpful. Perhaps my favourite is The Cupboard Of Winds which once and for all explains those weird draughts you get in old houses (buy some extra libations next time you go to the shops). It’s told in a matter-of-fact, entertaining fashion which perfectly blends the gods of ancient tales with a thoroughly modern setting… even down to a no-good boyfriend who only shows up when he’s keen on conjugal entertainment.
The recent craze for vamps and weres is well-served in Blood*uckers, a police procedural which doesn’t exactly break any new ground but adroitly brings wolves and fangs within sniffing distance of each other. Of the dozen there were maybe two which I didn’t enjoy so much. High School Mythical Asgard was undoubtedly brilliant in its weaving of old lore and modern situation but I couldn’t help feeling I was missing half the jokes.
The rest of the collection more than made up for the slower moments, however, and even Cthulhu puts in a brief appearance. The writing is well polished and edited throughout, and the stories carefully arranged to provide a change of pace, style and momentum as the anthology unfolds. This collection demonstrates the scope of the short story: it can be an entertaining interlude, little more than froth on your coffee. Or it can touch on deeper sensibilities and subjects – skilfully highlighting an overlooked aspect of the human condition in little more than a few thousand words. Just because it’s ‘make believe’, doesn’t mean it is inconsequential…
Altogether, an extremely entertaining afternoon spent in the company of ‘what if?’
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Urban Mythic 2 is available as a paperback and ebook