Book Review: Telling Tales: The Clarion West 30th Anniversary Anthology Edited by Ellen Datlow

While I was at the Norwescon science fiction convention last spring, I attended a panel on the value of workshops for writers.  There are all sorts of different types of such workshops, from local meet-ups of aspiring writers who informally read each other’s works to workshops led by professional writers or editors that may last from a day to several weeks.  All the panelists agreed, however, that at the topmost tier were the Clarion workshops.

I attended Clarion West way back in 1973 when I was an immature but enthusiastic writer who had just turned twenty years old.  I raised my hand and explained to the panel and audience that I had been unready back then to profit much from the specific writing advice proffered by the professional guest instructors and my peers.  What did stick with me is the sense of community.  Before I went to Clarion West, I didn’t realize that there were others such as myself, people who were obsessed with writing and thought that nothing on Earth compared to the thrill of making a career of putting words together into stories.

None of the stories I wrote back in the seventies survive.  What survives is the community.  Four decades later, when I finally found myself back in Seattle after wandering far, including thirty-five years of living overseas, the fellowship of Clarion West graduates and instructors welcomed me with open arms.  It’s a tight-knit and yet wonderfully open and accepting group of intelligent, sympathetic, and encouraging individuals devoted to the reading, writing, and promotion of speculative fiction literature.

At the core of Clarion West is the workshop.  It’s an intensive six-week immersion into writing and critiquing science fiction and fantasy short stories that takes place every summer in Seattle, Washington.  Each week a different instructor teaches the students, who are expected to turn in a story for critiquing every week.

Telling Tales is an anthology of short stories from students of the workshop who have made a successful go of professional writing. The stories are reprints from as far back as the 1990s, and they have been donated by the authors to help raise funds for the workshop.  They have all seen previous publication in renowned science fiction magazines and anthologies.

It’s a good collection.  Some of the stories are not exactly my cup of tea, but all of them are nevertheless good stories.  One of the best is “Beluthahatchie” by Andy Duncan, which is my second-favorite deal with the devil fantasy of all time.  (First, for the curious, is “The Devil and Daniel Webster” by Stephen Vincent Benet.)  Another story that stood out to me is “Bitter Dreams” by Ian McHugh.  I’m not a fan of zombie movies or zombie stories, but McHugh brings a fresh take to the idea by injecting local Australian color into it with the background of the Outback, the local slang, and the concept of dreaming as a source of dark power.  “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” by Kij Johnson starts out slow, I think, but grows in intensity as it goes along and arrives at an immensely satisfying conclusion.

Other stories in the anthology are very entertaining as well.  Overall it’s an anthology of strong stories that’s well worth reading, and it has the added advantage that purchasing it helps the Clarion West writers workshop, which relies heavily on donations to keep helping new writers in the science fiction and fantasy genres find their unique voices year after year.

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