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Monday, March 4, 2013 - Page updated at 04:30 a.m.

Book review
Collections of strange and satisfying tales

By Nisi Shawl
Special to The Seattle Times

When it comes to strangeness, the stories that leave the strongest impressions of it are those that might, somehow, be real. One way of implying authenticity is for an author to claim to have found someone’s diary, or, as in the case of Angelica Gorodischer’s“Trafalgar” (Small Beer Press, 200 pp., $16), to have heard the hero’s exploits firsthand.

Argentinean fabulist Gorodischer has been compared to Borges and Cortazar, but these anecdotes of an imaginary interstellar trader named Trafalgar Medrano are more akin to the work of Jack Vance or Harlan Ellison, science fiction authors known for telling tales light on technical details and heavy on an atmosphere of the bizarre.

This story cycle-cum-novel has a very 1970s feel to it, and indeed, “Trafalgar” was first published in Spanish in 1979. Translator Amalia Gladhart conveys the time’s freewheeling spirit as readily as she gives us the distinctive Latin American flavor of The Burgundy, the fictive bar where Trafalgar recounts his adventures. She is economical as she presents Gorodischer’s descriptions of worlds such as Veroboar, ruled by cruel beauties who have sex only with machines. Elegantly constructed images and smooth narrative twists make “Trafalgar’s” enchanting oddness all-encompassing and unforgettable.

Some strange stories create their verisimilitude by partially mirroring what most of us call reality. Behind the too-normal façade of Robert Jackson Bennett’s“American Elsewhere” (Orbit, 660 pp., $13.99) lies the abyss.

Heroine Mona Bright, drifting through the Southwest in the wake of a dead daughter and a ruined marriage, finds her way to Wink, New Mexico, intent on claiming an inheritance left to her by her brilliant and suicidal mother. Should she settle down in Wink and try to fit in?

During daylight hours it seems like a nice enough place. The town’s inhabitants, however, are not all human, which leads, unavoidably, to pain and terror — despite these interdimensional interlopers’ desperate attempts to live out an Ozzie-and-Harriet version of happiness. Mad and humorous, gory and poignant, “American Elsewhere” is a sort of mid-20th-century retelling of the embodiment of Lovecraftian Elder Gods by way of Alamogordo’s legendary atomic tests. It’s not to be missed.

The title of Will Ludwigsen’s“In Search Of and Others” (Lethe Press, 196 pp., $15) is taken from a late-’70s-and-early-’80s TV series investigating alleged real-life paranormal phenomena. Awash in the author’s dreamlike clarity of language, we follow young boys through a make-believe landscape to a serial killer’s cemetery, trace the route of the oily alien flotsam which cures a sickly little girl, creep after a house crossing half the continent to confess its crime, and applaud the endless encores of a puppeteer who is probably — perhaps — a ghost.

Transparent yet evocative, the narrative voice seems to melt away. Nothing is solid. Nothing is certain except speculation: our need to ask questions no one can guarantee will ever be answered. While its namesake TV show traded on the rather dubious legitimacy of fringe science subjects — Big Foot, the Loch Ness monster — “In Search Of” acknowledges that its contents are fiction, lies that are still somehow true. An appendix offers brief notes on these stories’ origins, but leaves a few points obscured. Like the rest of the book, it shows us just enough that we perceive the beauty before us.

Seattle author Nisi Shawl recently edited “Bloodchildren: Stories by the Octavia E. Butler Scholars,” a fundraising e-book anthology for the Octavia E. Butler Scholarship.


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