Wonders of the Invisible World by Patricia A. McKillip
Reviewed by Chris Kammerud
17 December 2012
Near the end of, "The Kelpie," one of the best stories in the latest collection of work by Patricia A. McKillip, Wonders of the Invisible World, a woman named Emma stands on the shore of a fog-covered lake, enraptured by the sudden, wondrous appearance of a horse "as white as the mist." Further up the shore, two men—one she loves and one she inspires—race towards her. Enchanted by the beast before her, though, Emma ignores the men and mounts the horse, grabbing hold of its mane. The horse—much to the surprise of Emma and the two men—gathers its muscles, turns, and leaps cleanly into the mist, disappearing beneath the lake without a sound. A fitting end, perhaps, to this story of the violent nature of love and surrender, except it's not the end at all. McKillip follows Emma beneath the lake as she holds her breath and clings to the horse, a kelpie, as it plunges ever deeper into the abyss.
Water weeds trailed past her, and schools of startled fish. The horse, which was behaving like no horse she had ever met in her life, dragged her ruthlessly. It galloped in the water effortlessly; she was as buffeted, roiling around its body, as she would have been on land. Sometimes, flung over its outstretched head, she glimpsed a black, wicked eye, a widened nostril, its great muscular neck snaked out, teeth bared. It shook its head now and then, trying to loosen her grip, she thought; she only clung tighter, her lungs on fire, her eyes strained open, round and staring like a fish’s, unable not to look at what could not be possible. (p. 77)
Eventually, Emma emerges, still holding on, in a cave at the bottom of world. There she meets the Lake King, and, in exchange for her stories of joy and sorrow and anger and love—words he has never known—he grants her wish for return. And, so, the kelpie bears her again, up through the waters, depositing her, damp and breathless and full of wonder, back into the world from which she came.
In 2008, McKillip received a World Fantasy lifetime achievement award, honoring a career that began in the mid-70s with works such as the 1976 novel The Riddlemaster of Hed, concerning a young prince in a land of vanished wizards, and continues through to her latest novel in 2010, The Bards of Bone Plain, concerning a search for mythical lands and lost languages. In so much of her work, as in so many of the stories collected in Wonders of the Invisible World, there is, again and again, this seeking out of a world beyond the world we see, a world at once more primal and impossible, a world of wizards and elf fire, of mermaids and monsters.
The sequence of Emma riding the kelpie remained with me, in part, because it seemed to capture something of the curious, violent, and gripping desire that drives so many of McKillip's characters and stories. Often our entry point into these narratives comes in the form of a man, woman, girl, or wizard, who are in search of some invisible wonder, whether that of art, or faerie, or love. In the story "Jack O’ Lantern," a sheltered young girl becomes enchanted by a light across a plain and chases after it, half-believing, half-hoping, that it might be the glow of the Will o'the Wisp—someone who might lead her from a world of boiled cabbage, history lessons, and French conjugation, into a world wild and dark and full of possibility. In "Knight of the Well," a broken-hearted young soldier finds himself searching out water spirits who, from time to time, appear to possess the face of his beloved. Another, "Oak Hill," concerns a runaway hoping to find, in some dark alley—behind some particular dumpster, perhaps—a monster who might teach her magic. "Byndley" follows a wizard, Reck, in search of a mysterious, and possibly ambulatory, town called Byndley that could lead him back to the land of faerie. It is one of the great pleasures of reading McKillip that these quests, these longings that throb in the hearts of her characters—whether prince or runaway or wizard—always lead them somewhere unexpected. McKillip, and her characters, always hold on for just that little bit longer, so that they, and the readers, emerge somewhere surprising and inevitable. The runaway in search of monsters discovers the horrible wonder and power of the monster within herself. The wizard in search of the faerie queen who betrayed him finds, instead, the wonder of a shame and anger, that has for so long dwelt, hidden and burdensome, within the secret chambers of his heart.
Within her prose, as within her narratives, McKillip works to strip away the familiar, presenting her readers with images designed to pull at our most primal instincts: hunger, fear, desire. Hair is "coiled and scalloped like cream on an éclair" (p. 122). Eyebrows light upon faces like "moth wings" (p. 71). It is a style that might best be described as delectable, and, which, to some, may come across as a bit rich, like sitting down to a meal of cabernet and red velvet cake. At their best, though, these descriptions perform a sort of sleight of hand, collapsing the binaries of wild and domestic, of magical and mundane, such that everything seems possible and a little bit terrifying. In one of my favorite descriptions, McKillip likens a tall woman's tentative movements across a room full of artists and poets, in pursuit of a golden monkey, as like those of "a wood nymph at a tea party" (p. 40). The wonder of the wonders in McKillip's narratives, as in her prose, is never that they are beyond us, or that they are somewhere else, but that they are always already here, beneath our feet, brushing against our eyelids, lurking just around the corner, hidden within our own hearts.
On a panel at the most recent World Fantasy Convention in Toronto, a group of writers, agents, and editors, pondered the various definitions, histories, and expectations of that generic subset of capital F Fantasy known as Urban Fantasy. Do all Urban Fantasies have to include a kick-ass heroine? Are werewolves, vampires, or ghosts more appropriate? What of faeries? Do they all have to be set in modern day? Do they even have to be urban? Is it possible to have an urban fantasy set in an alternate, vaguely, Victorian city? What of contemporary magical realism? Mythic folk? Robotic faeries? As silly as the discussion got, it led me to wonder at how contemporary urban fantasies, such as Cassandra Clare's The Mortal Instruments or Holly Black's Curse Workers, have a lineage stretching back not only through the Bordertown stories or the modern faerie tales of Angela Carter, but further still to Gothic literature—to the ghosts that haunted the ramparts of Howard Walpole and The Castle of Otranto—and to those Greek myths that concerned the gods and their habit of walking among us. It is that genre of tale that lets us know the old magicks linger still, haunting, brightening, and twisting up our lives in unexpected but familiar ways. What connects all of these stories, of course, has very little to do with kick-ass heroines or any particular sort of city. Instead, it is that same longing and terror that powers McKillip's stories, that of the belief in, and pursuit of, a world that is more than meets the eye.
McKillip fits neatly, I suppose, within those genres referred to as Urban Fantasy, Contemporary Fantasy, or Modern Faerie, and, at the same time, she neatly skirts past them, as the threads of her narratives go further back than genre, or language, brushing up against that place where the first stories came from—that moment of an individual consciousness awakening to the joy and terror of the universe. That first glimpse of a distant moon or endless ocean. The startled look in someone's eye when they find themselves surrendering to love, or lust. Those moments you know that something of the energy that spins atoms and galaxies and hearts still eludes us. In so many ways, the job of a storyteller should always be first, and foremost, to take us back to that moment, when everything was new and possible and terrifying. Reading the sixteen stories collected in Wonders of the Invisible World, one discovers that McKillip remains, after so many years, a master storyteller, her prose and her narratives capable of performing that most blessed magic, that of transporting us into the starlit thrill of a dark wood or the breathless nature of falling in love, and then depositing us back again into our own worlds, safe and sound, gasping and speechless, our eyes open again, for the first time, to the invisible wonder of it all.