THE POTTAWATOMIE GIANT
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
Nearly every story in Andy Duncan’s collection The Pottawatomie Giant is Duncan’s unique blend of Southern literature and either fantasy or science fiction. In practical terms, this means there is a darkness, of a naturalistic rather than horrific nature, that is rare in modern fantasy. Duncan also incorporates an unapologetic ruralness into his stories in a genre which tends to be much more urban-focused, resulting in stories set in a world which may be extremely alien to many readers.
As Duncan indicates in his afterwords, nearly all of the stories included in the book were inspired by historical events and individuals. Buck Nelson, of “Close Encounters” really did claim to have encountered aliens and visited Mars and Venus. The titular character of the book, the boxer known as Jess Willard and “The Great White Hope,” really did have an encounter with Harry Houdini. However, Duncan takes these events and introduces his own twists ranging from Nelson’s internal dialogue to the elements of quantum physics in Willard and Houdini’s meeting.
The two stories which most thoroughly exemplify Duncan’s style are the paired stories about Pearleen Sunday, “A Diorama of the Infernal Regions, or The Devil’s Ninth Question“ and “The Dragaman’s Bride.” The former serves as an origin story for a young girl who seems like she is nothing special who learns that she has special powers. In the latter, she has learned how to use and channel those powers to help not only an missing girl, but also her entire community, which has been dismissed as “rednecks” and unworthy by the government which is supposed to serve them. The underlying inspiration of eugenics just adds to the horrific aspect of the story.
Even Duncan’s most humorous story is a veneer overlaid on a dark world. Playing with the similarity of names of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins and Mississippi Senator Theodore Bilbo, Duncan transposes Senator Bilbo’s racist philosophy to a world in which there actually are a plethora of races for a bigot to rail against.
Two of the stories, “Daddy Mention and the Monday Skull” and “Zora and the Zombie” draw their initial inspiration from the works and life of Zora Neale Hurston with a generous mixture of foreign beliefs, whether the superstitions of Southern Blacks or Haitian voodoo practices. Duncan seems to handle the material respectfully and has produced two memorable, if atypical, stories.
The final story in the collection is a lengthy look at the career of Sergei Korolev, the mastermind behind the Soviet Union’s early space program in the 1950s and 60s. Although nothing science fictional happens in the course of the story, which is a study of human ingenuity and ambition towards space, the tale is designed to appeal to the same type of person who enjoys science fiction and provides an excellent conclusion to the fiction of the collection before Duncan bundles his brief discussions of his inspirations in an informative afterword.
Duncan has a distinctive style in speculative fiction, giving rural and southern areas a clear voice that few other authors can offer with such mastery. He manages to portray the culture in a way that provides an alienness and a familiarity at the same time while being respectful of southern culture. At the same time, Duncan does not infuse the culture with a sense of nostalgia or sentimentality. He is aware of the difficulties, as well as the strengths of southern society and both are reflected in his stories.
|The Pottawatomie Giant||Provenance|
|Senator Bilbo||A Diorama of the Infernal Regions, or The Devil's Ninth Question|
|The Big Rock Candy Mountain||The Dragaman's Wife|
|Daddy Mention and the Monday Skull||The Night Cache|
|Zora and the Zombie||Close Encounters|
|Unique Chicken Goes in Reverse||The Chief Designer|