Dreams of Distant Shores by Patricia McKillip
Dreams of Distant Shores is a collection of seven shorter fantasy works ― five short stories and two novellas ― and a non-fictional essay by one of my favorite fantasy authors, Patricia McKillip. Several of these works are reprints of stories originally published elsewhere; “Mer,” “Edith and Henry Go Motoring” and “Alien” are the only ones original to this collection, but since I had never seen any of these stories elsewhere, they were all doorways to new and enchanting worlds for me. This collection, where faeries and other fantastical creatures and beings intersect with commonplace people, sometimes rudely intruding in our world and sometimes luring us into theirs, tends more toward urban fantasy than McKillip’s typical high fantasy work, but it’s not your typical werewolves and vampires type of urban fantasy.
“Weird” – 4 stars. A man and a woman, locked in a bathroom with a basket of gourmet food, tell each other about the weirdest things that have happened to them in their lives, with the stories growing progressively more odd. What begins as an apparent romantic hideout becomes gradually more ominous and unsettling, as outside of their locked bathroom there is a “menacing, furious, strangely desperate racket.” The couple is ignoring the appalling din as best they can … or are they?
“Mer” – 3.5 stars. An extremely long-lived witch shifts over time from shape to shape, place to place, and then is convinced by the goddess of ocean tides to take her place; it’s “only for a hundred years.” Exhausted after that stint of goddessing, she quietly creeps into an old wooden carving of a mermaid and brings her to life, upsetting the entire town of Port Dido, where the wooden mermaid is a local icon, especially the young men who were trying to temporarily “kidnap” the statue so she could be the illicit guest of honor at a friend’s wedding. The worshippers at Our Lady of the Cormorants, meanwhile, are trying to protect their bird from the fishermen who view the cormorants as unwelcome competition for fish ― and the mermaid inadvertently gets involved. “Mer” is a quirky and amusing story.
The Gorgon in the Cupboard – 5 stars. Harry, a struggling painter, finds inspiration in two sources: his former artist’s model, Jo Byrd, who slowly makes her way back to his home after an absence of a couple of years, initially unrecognized by Harry, after she has fallen on hard times; and the rude-talking Medusa who unexpectedly possesses and animates the voluptuous lips of one of his unfinished paintings, giving Harry unsolicited (and often unwanted) advice. This story takes place in a Victorian-type setting, in a time when servant girls were turned out on the streets for getting pregnant. The desperate and miserable existence of Jo and the other poor folk contrasts with the comfortable living and lovely country retreats of Harry and his painter friends and their families and friends. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the talking Medusa painting, but she does offer some pointed commentary and insights to Harry. Ultimately, I think this novella makes an excellent point about how people so often look without really seeing. Even Harry and his painter friends, whose business is observing life and recreating it on their canvases to provide inspiration to others, often don’t understand or appreciate what is in front of their eyes.
“Which Witch” – 3 stars. This is a brief vignette about a group of white witches who’ve formed a musical band called Which Witch. Witch Hazel (yes, that’s the main character’s name) and her group are playing a club one night, hanging with their familiars, when an evil monster invades the club. Mayhem ensues. It’s a lightweight, humorous diversion, easily forgettable.
“Edith and Henry Go Motoring” – 2.5 stars. In the early part of the twentieth century, a rather dissatisfied wife and her friend Harry go for a chauffeured drive in the country. They pass over a mysterious toll bridge, where the outlandish-looking toll-taker tells them the toll is half of whatever they bring from the other side, and end up in an odd, dreamlike place. It seemed to be a type of psychological experience for Edie and Harry, a disclosure of their possibilities and choices, but the story didn’t really resonate with me.
“Alien” – 4.5 stars. In “Alien,” the typical craziness of a family reunion, where love and irritation so readily mix, is sidelined when their grandmother, the materfamilias of the family, refuses to leave her home and drive the few miles to the reunion. Grandma had previously gotten “sucked up into the bowels of an alien spaceship,” and now she’s hopefully waiting for the aliens to come back for her again. A story of family ties, both humorous and poignant.
Something Rich and Strange – 4.5 stars. Megan, an artist, lives with her boyfriend Jonah, who has a curio shop on the ocean coast. One day Megan meets an odd jewelry-maker named Adam Fin, who seems to her to hail from some ancient, foreign seaport. Jonah is irritated and a little jealous of Adam, just from Megan’s descriptions of him; but then Jonah sees an intoxicating woman singing with a band in the local bar, and is instantly entranced by her. Jonah, who tends to see everything in black and white, is suddenly at sea, obsessed by a mysterious woman whose voice has an elusive undertone of sea tides.
Imagination is dangerous. It changes things. You think you know what the world is and where you are in it, and then you walk out the door, and the storm clouds are a migration of great white whales, and the moonlight on the water is a stairway down into the sea.
Megan is distracted by Adam Fin and the odd way her artwork is beginning to transform itself; Jonah can’t explain to her why he is so haunted by this unknown woman. Despite warnings from Adam, Jonah finds the stairway down into the sea. Megan, realizing something of the danger Jonah is in, seeks to rescue him, but there is a price to be paid to the sea.
Something Rich and Strange was originally published on a stand-alone basis in 1994, with illustrations by Brian Froud, whose artwork was used to inspire this tale of the ancient and magical rulers of the ocean and their underwater realms, and how they affect humans … and how humans affect them. McKillip’s trademark lush, poetic prose is in full flow here, giving a dreamy feel to this story. It’s lovely to read despite its very leisurely pace and occasional opaqueness. This novella has touches of Tam Lin and the Snow Queen about it, translated to an oceanic setting, which actually works very well. There’s an environmental protection message at the end that got a bit too heavy-handed, where I would have preferred more subtlety, but otherwise I really enjoyed this tale.
At the end of Dreams of Distant Shores are a brief essay and an afterword that offer some additional insights into the strange worlds created by McKillip. In “Writing High Fantasy,” McKillip explaining some of the ideas and thoughts behind some of her well-known high fantasy works. It gives some interesting insights into her thought processes.
At its best, fantasy rewards the reader with a sense of wonder about what lies within the heart of the commonplace world. The greatest tales are told over and over, in many ways, through centuries. Fantasy changes with the changing times, and yet it is still the oldest kind of tale in the world, for it began once upon a time, and we haven’t heard the end of it yet.
In an afterword entitled “Dear Pat,” author Peter Beagle adds his comments and insights regarding the stories in this book. It’s well worth reading, opening new windows of meaning in these tales and giving me a greater appreciation for McKillip’s great literary talent.
I originally thought Dreams of Distant Shores would be a 4 star book for me, but I’ve found that most of these stories beg to be revisited, and my appreciation has grown with rereading. McKillip’s prose is both lovely and thought-provoking. Highly recommended to readers who enjoy fantastical short works.
Since I haven’t read any of Patricia McKillip’s work before, I was very excited to get my hands on a copy of Dreams of Distant Shores, which collects seven short pieces of fiction both new and previously-published, a short non-fiction essay by McKillip herself, and an afterword by Peter S. Beagle entitled, simply, “Dear Pat.” I’d always heard high praise associated with McKillip’s fiction — her gifts with language, her deep understanding of the human heart, her knack for portraying the misunderstandings which plague romantic and platonic relationships — and I’m pleased to say that this collection lived up to that reputation, even when individual pieces weren’t to my taste. These aren’t stories you can rush through; you have to take your time, savor the wordplay, let McKillip cast her spell over you. Magic is very real in her stories, and she makes you believe that it could be real for you, too.
“Weird,” a short story from 2013, is a moody and intriguing tale of a man and a woman, trapped in a posh bathroom with an assortment of gourmet snacks, while an unseen something howls and rages outside the door. The man presses the woman to relate the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to her, and she tells increasingly strange stories which may or may not be true and seem to affect their environment. “Weird” is a very weird story, so much so that it feels incomplete, experimental, leaving me with far more questions than answers.
“Mer,” a brand-new short story, plays with the concepts of name and identity. A nameless witch, freshly settled in America’s Pacific Northwest, loans her physical body to the goddess of the tides for a century. After a hundred years of fulfilling the goddess’ duties, the witch taps someone else for the job and returns to corporeal form: a local fishing town’s wooden mermaid. Three young men soon try to steal the statue, which wakes the witch, and mostly-gentle hijinks result. I love McKillip’s scene-setting in this piece; everything I love about the Pacific Northwest — the people, the weather, the scent of the trees and the ocean — is on full display here.
The Gorgon in the Cupboard, a novella from 2004, is an honest and compassionate examination of human beings and their inability to see one another honestly. Harry Waterman is a struggling artist, in love with his mentor’s wife and desperate for inspiration so that he’ll be respected and renowned in his circle of friends. Jo Byrd, once a chambermaid and artists’ model, is now reduced to committing petty crimes in the hope that she’ll be arrested and given somewhere dry to sleep. When Harry accidentally summons the spirit of Medusa into an old painting of Persephone, the painting speaks to him with the voice of a woman who sees far more than the short-sighted young man is capable of. Jo and Harry cross paths, and through their interactions (and the commentary of a certain Gorgon) McKillip examines the ways in which men objectify women, the rich objectify or ignore the poor, and the happiness which is possible when people view one another with honesty and compassion.
“Which Witch,” a too-short vignette from 2012, contains really good world-building and hints at a fascinating superstructure in this tale of witches, their familiars, and primeval horrors crawling out of the sea. Hazel and her crow, Cawley, were fun, but it was hard to feel connected to the characters or concerned about their well-being when I know so little about them. The story felt like the opening chapter of a novel or a piece meant to fit within a specifically-themed anthology. I’d happily read more about Hazel and her fellow witches if McKillip chose to expand the story into a larger work.
“Edith and Henry Go Motoring,” also new to Dreams of Distant Shores, is almost too dreamlike. Edie and her friend Harry go for a ride in the countryside, seeking the town of Tattersclaw at the suggestion of their driver, Thompson. After crossing a strange bridge with a fearsome toll collector, the trio happens upon a crumbling manor with the portentous name of Rêve. Harry goes inside, Edie follows him, and what happens afterward is full of sensory impressions and disorientation, like a half-remembered dream sleepily told to a bedmate. It’s a story about what might have been, which runs the risk of being dreadfully mundane, but McKillip’s talent elevates it to something more interesting.
“Alien,” the third original piece, is certainly more plausible than many other alien-abduction stories I’ve heard. Grandmother Abby claims to have been taken to an alien ship, examined, and returned safely home, but her insistence that she needs to stay at home in case they return complicates the yearly family reunion. The majority of the family thinks she’s nuts, or on some kind of drug, and granddaughter Maggie doesn’t know which would be worse. Here and so often elsewhere in the collection, McKillip reveals her keen eye for the ways we accidentally hurt the people we care for the most.
Something Rich and Strange, a 1994 novella, is as near to perfect as fiction can get. All of McKillip’s strengths, gifts, and passions are on full display in this wonderful intermingling of the modern world and ancient mythology, the supernatural and the mundane. Even the character names — Megan, Jonah, Doris — inform the text. Megan, an artist, sells drawings in her boyfriend Jonah’s shop, Things Rich and Strange. An unfamiliar creature appears in one of her tidal pool drawings, and shortly afterward, a strange jewelry-maker who calls himself “Adam Fin” appears in Jonah’s shop. The two ordinary humans are set adrift in a sea of strangeness, encountering selkies, sirens, and the murky depths of the ocean itself.
I love the way McKillip writes about the sea, coastal towns, and coastal people, but I also love the way she writes about artists. She has a terrific understand of the creative mind, the need to replicate or reshape certain parts of the world, and the reflection of one’s self in one’s work. Early in the novella, Jonah tries to tell Megan how to finish a sketch; in essence, Jonah tells Megan who to be. Adam’s appreciation for her work without comment or criticism— accepting Megan for who she is, which pleases her immensely — inflames jealousy in Jonah’s normally placid demeanor. The ecological message at the end is a little heavy-handed, but considering that this was originally published twenty years ago and Garbage Island isn’t getting any smaller, it’s forgiveable.
“Writing High Fantasy,” a short essay which originally appeared in 2002, is a great examination of McKillip’s craft and personal motivation. I wish it had been used as a foreword or introduction to the collection, bookended by Beagle’s afterword, but I’m glad it was included.
“Dear Pat” is a charming little afterword, a mini-review of the stories, and a lovely letter to a longtime friend. Beagle’s thoughts on each story were informative, and as I’ve admired his work for a long time, it was interesting to read his thoughts about an author whose work he admires in turn. This was a wonderful way to conclude the collection.
Dreams of Distant Shores is sensuous, mournful, beautiful, and poetic. Despite its occasional flaws, was an excellent introduction to Patricia McKillip’s fiction, and I will absolutely seek out her back-catalogue as well as any future short stories or novels. Recommended particularly for readers who are new to McKillip’s work, but also for readers who want to revisit some old stories along with the new.
Both Tadiana and Jana have explored the stories collected in Dreams of Distant Shores with care and an eye for the detail that Patricia McKillip weaves into the tales. I wanted to highlight some of the stories I particularly loved, and the ones I felt the most moved by.
“Weird” opens the collection and left me wanting more of it in the best ways. The couple on the bathroom floor telling each other weirder and weirder stories while eating fancy cheeses is an interesting image. It becomes a much more intriguing idea when the noises outside the walls of the small room intermittently interrupt their reprieve. I wanted to know so much more about the world in which these people exist, but savoured the atmosphere in the short glimpse of their lives. Perhaps it is close to the end of their experience as the banging at the door becomes more frantic. McKillip leaves us not knowing, and maybe that’s for the best.
The next story that was a stand-out for me was The Gorgon in the Cupboard. Tadiana encapsulates the ideas of this story. Like Tadiana did, I found a story about people, even artists, existing without seeing or imagining others complexly. Their models are too often only allowed to be beautiful faces in their worlds rather than fully realized people. I liked the commentary of this tale, and also found many of the characters deeply sympathetic and relatable.
Finally, I wanted to point out the story “Which Witch,” but Jana said everything I was thinking about it in her review. It’s fun, with a world behind it I very much want to explore further.
These three were my stand-outs from this collection. Otherwise, both Jana and Tadiana’s reviews do an excellent job of talking about the other stories and essays in Dreams of Distant Shores.
~ Skye Walker
I’ve been a long-time fan of Patricia McKillip, and getting my hands on a collection of her short stories is like finding a treasure box: each one a gemstone to be admired and savoured. In many ways her prose is better suited for short stories, as often it can be so dense and detailed that it’s not as difficult to penetrate when meted out in smaller doses.
This volume contains seven short stories, though the last is better described as a novella given its length. All of them have been published elsewhere, and the last, “Something Rich and Strange”, can also be found as a standalone publication that comes with illustrations by Brian Froud. There’s also a short essay on writing high fantasy, and an afterword by Peter S. Beagle.
McKillip’s range is on full display here — moving from fairy tales to magical realism to even a touch of sci-fi. Her love of the ocean and its inhabitants is especially prevalent; she’s always been good at describing its depths, and “Something Rich and Strange” is best described as a Tam Lin story in which both the lovers are lured to the sea and what lies beneath its surface.
There’s also a talking gorgon, a mysterious rag-and-bone man, a witch’s familiar, and a strange sojourn into a house that reveals one’s deepest desires. In other words, Dreams of Distant Shores is a grab-bag that will satisfy any McKillip reader.
I was drawn to this book because it’s McKillip and because of that pretty cover, but I see I’ve read several of these already. Still, the essays alone make it look worthwhile.
The essays are great, but just be aware that they’re only about 8 or 10 pages each. I consider myself a McKillip fan, but I’d never seen any of these stories before. She does have the loveliest covers, doesn’t she?
I’m glad you enjoyed this book too, Jana. I can’t believe you’ve never read anything by Patricia McKillip before! Go find The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, Alphabet of Thorn, Winter Rose, or The Changeling Sea, stat! Others may differ, but those are my favorite books by her.
She’s one of those authors I’d always meant to start reading, but somehow never got to until recently. Now I’m scrambling to make up for lost time, so thank you for the recommendations, because otherwise I’d have no idea where to start! :D
I’m glad I discovered this artist this year. I loved the collection, especially Mer. McPhillip reminds me of Ray Bradbury a bit. This was one of my favorite reads this year.
It’s so much fun to find a new author whose work you love! McKillip has been a longtime favorite of mine.