Enter the exotic, violent, macabre world of acclaimed author Jessica Amanda Salmonson. A world where all reality hangs by... A Silver Thread of Madness.
Where a half-witted genius, abandoned at birth, searches for his past identity and collides with his terrifying destiny.
Where a young girl's ultimate obsession for samurai movies becomes the ultimate ticket to death.
And where demons dance with saints, while sanity falls prey to a woman's sword....
Ace, 1989, 179 pages
The great art of modern literature is to be found all but exclusively in the short story, despite that it is commercially but the poor cousin of the novel. Those authors who have forsaken the short story for the less competitive and monetarily greener pastures of the novel have by and large abandoned art.
So says Jessica Amanda Salmonson in her dedication to her 1989 short story collection, A Silver Thread of Madness. I won't argue with her position -- it's hers, she has a right to it. But while I enjoyed this collection, it's still her Tomoe Gozen trilogy that remains among my favorite fantasy reads of all time, and I wish she might return to "monetarily greener pastures."
A Silver Thread of Madness is the sort of collection that isn't published much nowadays -- in today's publishing market, you have to be a pretty big name to get a collection of your short fiction published. Most of Salmonson's books are out of print, and she hasn't published a whole lot since the early 90s. Back in the 80s, though, the SF/fantasy market was not quite so tight (nor being sat on by the 800-pound gorilla of YA and paranormal romances), and Salmonson had some commercial success with her novels, and so Ace published this slim volume. Most of the stories in it had been published in SF&F magazines previously, but some are original to this collection.
You can tell her interests from her website, Violet Books. She likes old stories that blend the literary with the fantastic. She's also somewhat notable in the LGBT fantasy/horror field, as an editor of numerous anthologies. (Not all of which are so themed, but most have at least a few stories that fall into that category.)
The collection is divided into three parts.
I. Six Legends
The Romance of Tcheska and Provetsko
Stomping Grounds of the Gods
A Child of Earth and Hell
Three Dirty Men
Each legend is set in a different time and place -- the settings range from Asia to Russia to North America. These come closest to being traditional fantasy, being full of gods and magic and supernatural beings. They are each, as is proper for a legend, somewhat open-ended while still self-contained, and it's easy to imagine each one being based on an actual legend from the culture depicted. (As far as I know, none are.) It's fine if not particularly ground-breaking storytelling, and Salmonson quite captures the tone of a legendary tale.
II. A Silver Thread of Madness
Seller of Stones
Nights in the City
The Old Woman Who Dragged Her Husband's Corpse
Tycoon and Lady Death
The Womb and the Grave
Meditations and Confessions Regarding my Disturbing Ability
The "thread" running through all these stories is madness -- that's really the only common theme, though some other themes reappear in many of them. In each story, the main character is (or believed to be) mad in some way. Most are set in Seattle or thereabouts (Salmonson's stomping grounds), and most have some element of the supernatural in them. Ghosts appear in several. Some are funny, some are horrific. Salmonson engages in some experimental writing in a few of them, sometimes addressing the reader directly, or engaging in meta-writing (the writer commenting on her own writing), but most stories are first-person narratives by a possibly unreliable narrator, from the (dead?) woman who describes with nauseating detail the process of her own putrefaction as she sits in her apartment in "Body Rot" to the woman possessed of the remarkable super-power of being able to make cigarettes explode in "Meditations and Confessions Regarding my Disturbing Ability." Some are very dark ("Body Rot"; "Parenting," a darkly satirical commentary on the treatment of children; "The Womb and the Grave," another dark comedy about a man who was a monster in life and understands his role in God's plan after death), while some are amusing if bitter ("Seller of Stones", about a woman who sells rocks -- ordinary rocks, picked up off the street -- to executives and bankers and other wealthy customers; "Samurai Fugue", about a film student who becomes lost in the many simultaneous perspectives with which she interrogates her work). All have a bite to them, not precisely a twist, but you can see Salmonson is winking at you and leaving it to the reader to decide what point she is trying to make. It's clear her influences are many and varied: Russian writers, certainly; also, there is much of Poe and Lovecraft and Oscar Wilde in her stories. I also can't help thinking that some of the more experimental, mind-bendy pieces, like "Samurai Fugue" and "Seller of Stones," were influenced a bit by Jorge Luis Borges.
III. Tales of Naipon
The Harmonious Battle
Time-Slit Through a Rice Paper Window
Story of a Castle Page
For a Tomoe Gozen fan, of course, these might be the stories one savors the most, but while they're quite good, they don't have the same dark, disturbing complexity as those in the previous section. The Harmonious Battle is about a warrior-woman who has lost an arm and must battle her demons (literally and figuratively) as part of her healing. Time-Slit Through a Rice Paper Window is a bit more meta again, a tale of a young samurai with the author making observations about the reader's role as an observer. Story of a Castle Page is about a vain castle page whose seduction of an innocent young man leads to tragedy and karmic retribution and redemption in the manner of samurai tales. All good stories, but no Tomoe Gozen.
As I comment a lot on the fuzzy line between "literary" and "genre" fiction, I think Salmonson is noteworthy in that she's clearly writing genre stories, but her literary influences are obvious, and her writing, both in style and substance, is worthy of being held up for comparison to those much more famous names. I'd have to admit that she skews a bit more towards the "writing for entertainment" side of the line, but I do think she has streaks of brilliance and deserves to be more widely regarded, and probably would be if she didn't write mostly ghost stories and samurai tales. All this is purely speculation on my part: I have absolutely no idea how Salmonson regards her own work or what she'd think about a discussion concerning how "literary" she is. But I sure do wish she'd write more. She's better than the vast majority of big and mid-list names in the fantasy market today.
Verdict: This book is out of print, but if you like quirky, dark short stories written by a serious genre writer who refuses to condescend to the genre reader, it's worth finding. Salmonson is one of the underrated fantasy writers of our time.