Friday, February 1, 2013

Review: A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer

I've managed to finish quite a few good books in January, so it's only appropriate to kick off February by reviewing one of the most entertaining books I've ever had the pleasure of reading. Like most weird fiction authors, Molly Tanzer first caught my attention with her short fiction. I read her original tale of the debauched Calipash family and quite frankly, I was an instant fan. A Pretty Mouth is Tanzer's first collection, and what a first collection it is.

A Pretty Mouth is a reverse, incomplete history of the Calipash family. Within it's pages are four short stories (two of which have been previously published elsewhere) and a long novella. Every story present can easily stand alone, but when strung together they paint a twisted picture of the Calipashes over the centuries.

A quick look at the stories:

The collection opens with an original, A Spotted Trouble At Dolor-On-The-Downs, in which Tanzer takes the character of Reginald Jeeves (the butler/manservant created by author P.H. Wodehouse) and places him in the middle of a sticky conundrum. While vacationing at Dolor-On-The-Downs, a seaside resort, Jeeves's employer Wooster comes into contact with an old school mate, Alastair Fitzroy, the twenty-seventh Lord Calipash. What follows is an unfortunate turn of events in which Jeeves is forced into the service of Fitzroy. The story, like every story in the collection, is a weird tale through and through, but tinged with enough hilarity to really make it something special.

Tanzer follows with The Hour of The Tortoise (originally appearing in The Book of Cthulhu II). Whereas the first story takes place in the early 20th century, The Hour of the Tortoise rewinds the clock to the 19th century and follows Chelone Burchell, a pornography writer and cousin to the Calipash family, as she returns to the estate after many years in a sort of exile. This story was a standout in the anthology that it first appeared, and Tanzer does a brilliant job of blending humor, sexuality, and creepiness so that the final result is a smooth read with an entertainment factor that's through the roof. This one still remains one of my favorite stories of this debauched family.

Next comes the story that started it all, The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins. This one takes readers back to the 18th century, and features what will become common elements to every Calipash story: nods to Lovecraft, twins, hilariously perverse sexuality, debauchery, plenty of the macabre, and, of course, gut-busting dark hilarity. This was, appropriately, my first Tanzer story, and the one that started this whole wicked history. The plot is just like the title implies, and details the history of a wicked set of twins.

A Pretty Mouth, the title novella, is perhaps the best piece in the collection. And saying that is difficult, because every story was brilliant. In this one Tanzer gives reader a view into 17th century school life at Wadham College in Oxford. This tale follows Henry Milliner, a young man who would do anything to get in with St. John Clement, the Lord Calipash and the most popular student at Wadham. The boy finally finds an "in" but finds out that being a member of the Blithe Company might not be all it's cracked up to be. The story is filled with plenty of twists and turns, and shows that Tanzer is comfortable working in the realm of longer fiction.

And finally, the collection finished with Damnatio Memoriae, which takes readers all the way back to ancient Rome. An expedition to barbaric Brittania goes awry, and readers are introduced to the first of the Calipash line to set foot on the British Isles.

With this collection, Molly Tanzer has become one of my favorite new authors. Her love of Victorian literature is present, and combined with some modern elements the result is something quite special. The humor is spot-on in every story, and balanced so well with the macabre elements that it brings to mind a perverse hybrid of HP Lovecraft and Edward Gorey.

I really can't recommend this collection enough. It's hard to remember the last time I had this much fun reading a book, and was actually sad for it to come to an end. Readers looking for a wild frolic through a twisted, bizarre, depraved, nefarious, ingenious and unabashedly perverted mind should look no further, this is the book they've been waiting for.

Also, for fans of the book, Skurvy Ink has a really cool A Pretty Mouth shirt: HERE.

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