My first encounter with the fiction of Neal Barrett, Jr. came in late 1993, during my sophomore year in high school, in rural eastern North Carolina. My mother had a subscription to Asimov’’s Science Fiction that year, and I picked up the November issue and flipped to a long piece called “Cush,” because from the first lines I could tell it was set in the South. “Cush” made me a Barrett fan for life.
I didn’t re-read that story until I received Barrett’s hefty new collection from Subterranean Press, Other Seasons: The Best of Neal Barrett, Jr. I’m pleased to say that “Cush” holds up. It’s set in the deep south, among poor farm folk, and begins at the funeral of family patriarch Uncle Fry — who surprises everyone by sitting up in his coffin and returning to his old life (more or less; he never quite regains his former intellect). At the same time as his remarkable resurrection, a disfigured baby in the family named Cush — his mother, known as Crazy Pru, explains that it’s a perfectly good name, from the Bible — begins gushing blood from every pore. Cush doesn’t seem notably the worse for his experience (not that he was too good to begin with), and as he grows up, bizarre things continue to happen: the exhausted soil in the farm becomes impossibly fertile; his mother settles down and loses her madness; Uncle Fry lives well into his second century; and Pru keeps getting unlikely financial windfalls, among other things. Meanwhile, Cush gets worse and worse physically, every miracle offset by some new degeneration in his physical condition. Then the worshippers start arriving, people of every creed and faith, drawn by an odd compulsion to visit the farm. Cush’s ultimate apotheosis is not exactly a surprise, but that hardly matters. Barrett’s characters are strange and believable individuals; his writing is alternately lush and brutally straightforward, as the story demands; and the plot moves forward with moments of wonder, humor, and great emotional truth.
It’s a fine story — a story that only Barrett could have written. But the most interesting thing is: Barrett never wrote another story much like it. That’s the thing about Neal Barrett, Jr., the essential quality. He’s never settled into a groove — or, to use the more derogatory term, a rut. His career has ranged all over science fiction, fantasy, horror, crime fiction, and more, but even within a given subgenre he almost never writes the same kind of story twice. You rarely know what you’ll get when you start to read one of his stories, which makes every collection a continual revelation.
Science fiction has its beloved tropes, or “power chords” as Rudy Rucker calls them — big images and ideas that SF writers have used as the premises for all sorts of stories. Tropes such as First Contact, Time Travel, Alternate History, Robots, Alien Invasions, the Apocalypse. Barrett merrily embraces such narrative hooks, but never in the ways you might expect, and his approach to those big ideas usually comes from a strikingly unusual angle.
Take one of his most famous stories, the time-travel tale “Perpetuity Blues.” The main character, Maggie, never travels through time herself — except the way we all do, forward at a rate of second per second — but her life is changed utterly by someone who does (probably). Young Maggie, with an absent father and a dead mot...read more