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Spotlight on: Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales by Norman Partridge

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Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales by Norman Partridge Norman Partridge, Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales

This rerelease of Norman Partridge's debut short story collection is subtitled "A Collection / A Recollection / A Writer's Handbook," making it a much more ambitious rendering of the slim collection of the same name that won its author a 1992 Bram Stoker Award for Fiction Collection. He won the same award for his 2001 collection, The Man with the Barbed-Wire Fists, demonstrating his respect within the genre. In this new version of Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales, in addition to adding more stories from his early years, he tells how he got where he is today. Twenty-three essays alternate, more or less, with 19 works of fiction, offering a nearly complete portrait of a writer on the rise.

In his Foreword, author Edward Bryant, who wrote the Introduction the first time around, reminisces about his encounter with "The Passion of the Norm." "Passion," he says, "can make a bad writer's work passable. It turns a good writer's work unforgettable." Partridge has a passion for the mythic, he writes: "[He is] suffused with music, film, and the rest of the complex tapestry of our often undervalued popular culture." He goes on to mention signposts and semiotics and finishes with the supposition that what mainly kept Partridge from becoming another Harold Bloom was -- you guessed it! -- his passion. So, this Partridge fellow, we are to assume, is pretty darn passionate. Okay, so he's got the sense, but what about the sensibility? "He may be a writin' fool," Bryant quotes himself from his 1992 introduction, "but he's no fool at all when it comes to crafting solid fiction."

The 1992 Roadkill Press edition of Passionate Norm Partridge's Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales originally contained seven tales, only two of which had seen print prior to inclusion. As the book had pretty much jumpstarted his career, Partridge wanted to see it back in print. Bill Schafer of Subterranean Press agreed but thought they should make it better than just a simple reprint. Their discussion resulted in adding a dozen more early stories, with some notes prefacing each one (something I always look forward to from my favorite authors). In an interview with Mark Justice for the January, 2006, issue of Page Horrific, Partridge tells how that idea blossomed:

I figured, hey, no problem ... I'd talk about the good ol' days ... tell a few war stories, give a little advice to writers starting out today.... They turned into twenty-plus essays that weighed in at nearly 50,000 words. As it turned out, those essays contain the best advice I can give to writers starting out today.... So you might say that the new edition of Fox gave me a chance for a little payback, and that makes me more than a little happy.
And so this Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales is now considerably more than it was. Partridge has expanded (and expounded) upon it until it is now as much a primer on horror writing as it is a book of short stories. And, in any case, the majority of the attention being paid to Mr. Fox is because of these essays. These are the true stories, the stories of Norman Partridge and his life as a writer, written down for posterity so other writers may read them and, hopefully, learn from them -- the successes and the mistakes, the happy accidents, and especially the devotion to both craft and life.

Had I read the original 1992 edition, I likely would have given it a bad review. Only a couple of the stories here that appeared in that version made much of an impression on me. "The Baddest Son of a Bitch in the House" reads like an imitation of Joe R. Lansdale -- a practice Partridge openly admits to in the essay that precedes "Black Leather Kites" -- but not a very interesting one. The first story that really struck me was "Cosmos," which was not included in the original edition though it is from that period. His first sale, it has a twist-ending that really works by not spelling everything out for the reader. I had to reread the final paragraphs a couple of times before I really got it.

Conversely, I felt the title story's final betrayal deeply because I held such hope for the happiness of a couple who would be perfect for each other, but for their own selfish needs. It is a rare thing to be so emotionally affected by the characters in horror fiction. (Partridge also displays his flair genuine emotion in the immensely touching "Sandprint.")

This is not to say that I think he is a bad fiction writer; he's got all the right parts and puts them together well, I simply tend not to like the result. Purely a matter of opinion. Take "Stackalee" -- I can tell that it has all the ingredients for a great blues-and-the-devil story: a legend, rising from the dead, a good song, and a truly tricky ending -- but somehow all these jigsaw pieces don't fit together in the way I would like them to.

{If, however, Partridge is your cup of fear, you may want to invest in the more expensive lettered edition of Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales, which has the rare distinction of carrying nine more pieces, so you're not just paying more, you're getting more. I, of course, have not actually seen one, given that there were half as many printed as there are weeks in a year.)

It was a story about Old Hollywood that really drew me in -- not a big surprise, since that is by far my favorite era. "Velvet Fangs" features a dead star's stand-in, a mysterious demise, and a teenage girl's encyclopedic knowledge of classic horror films. That was more than enough to get me interested and instantly involved; the punny ending was just a bonus. "The Season of Giving" is a highlight and a terrific closer for the collection -- surprising given its backstory: Partridge wrote it in less than 24 hours from an outline and opening paragraph written by Richard Chizmar, a true sign of talent under pressure in addition to discipline and professionalism. My main question is why Partridge's best early stories, like "Johnny Halloween" and "Tyrannosaurus" (both of which were selected for inclusion in The Best of Cemetery Dance), were not included.

The centerpiece of Mr. Fox is the presentation of the first three chapters of Kiss of Death, an early novel that proved to be so outrageous in concept that even its author could not come up with an ending that he found believable. Partridge uses it here as the springboard to discuss the development of his first published novel, Slippin' into Darkness, in the essay entitled "The Care and Feeding of First Novels."

But for me, the fiction is secondary to the advice and reminiscences. Partridge's fiction voice may not move me, but I really feel his non-fiction one, and the great thing is that it doesn't matter. Whether I like his work or not, he has been a success and therefore his experience is worth hearing. He discusses vital subjects like aiming high with your submissions, how to work with editors, why he doesn't like writers' groups, a reluctant outliner's best friend, things you can sometimes ask for in addition to payment, and that only you can write in your own particular style. Don't be surprised to find Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales used in creative writing classes. There is almost twice as much fiction, page for page, as non-fiction, but, as in any writing text, the examples are meant to be illustrative. And anyway, $40 for a short story collection may be a little on the steep side, but $40 for a textbook? That's a bargain!

There are, of course, the usual recommendations of novels and stories to read, but what really makes Mr. Fox special is that Partridge is being completely himself. He is not attempting universality, not trying to be everything to everyone. He assumes that if you're choosing to read his advice, that you want to know what he thinks. If you wanted some other authors' advice, you'd be reading their books.

(A piece of advice to the those writers who will attempt to repeat the success of Mr. Fox with their own "collection / recollection / memoir" books: Don't go on and on about how the upcoming story is good, but not as good as one not in the collection. That only leads to disappointment -- he does it twice! -- and I'm sure it colored my opinion of the stories that followed.)

Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales is filled with a lot of abstractions: passion, wisdom, and fire, just to name a few. But the thing it is most full of is inspiration. The book itself impeded my progress on this review because I was being continually inspired to write fiction instead of opinion. A particular piece of advice, or turn of phrase, would send me scrambling from book to computer, eager to catch some of that fire and direct these ideas to use.

I don't know if any of these trials will ever see print, but I do know that I'll be moving Mr. Fox and Other Feral Tales from my Fiction shelf to my Writing shelf, placed in permanent rotation alongside Lawrence Block's Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing, and Janet Burroway's Writing Fiction (as well as the expected Zinsser and Strunk & White texts), as another book to call upon when my writing needs a concerted boost.

This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.

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