Horse of a Different Color: Stories isn’t the Howard Waldrop collection to start with, but buy it anyway. Waldrop, who keeps racking up Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award nominations (he hasn’t won since 1980, with “The Ugly Chickens”), is a nonpareil short story writer specializing in being eclectic as hell, although his obsessions – pop music, aging actors and comedians, comic books, black & white movies, and, of course, fishing – are, with the gallows humor that runs through almost every story, the thread stitching his body of work together.
If Samuel Beckett had been born in the American south and become a science fiction writer, his published work might’ve looked a lot like Howard Waldrop’s stories: pessimistic comedies and optimistic tragedies.
That said, several of the stories in the present collection, written between 2003 and 2010, are bagatelles; not bad, but not memorable. Take “The Bravest Girl I Ever Knew,” which purports to be a 1952 movie magazine article about the late actress, Ann Darrow (from KING KONG, get it?). It’s a story in search of an audience, as is the one in which the Pirates of Penzance and the crew of the HMS Pinafore meet Captain Hook. “The Horse of a Different Color” is, in the author’s unimprovable summary, “THE DA VINCI CODE done shorter and better, and with a pantomime horse.”
The best story here is 2005’s “The King of Where-I-Go,” a time travel story unlike any other, but “The Wolf-Man of Alcatraz,” a fantasy about the problems of keeping a convicted lycanthrope under lock and key, is almost as good. “Frogskin Cap” is a worthy contribution to the world of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth, while the seriously fractured fairy tale “Kindermarchen” is one of the darkest short stories that Waldrop, or anyone else, has ever written.
The other Waldrop books you must read are his debut collection, HOWARD WHO? (1986, reissued in 2006 by Small Beer Press), a dozen amazing stories including “Ike at the Mike,” in which Elvis Presley became a senator and Dwight Eisenhower became a jazz musician; THINGS WILL NEVER BE THE SAME (Old Earth Books, 2007), sixteen short stories from 1980 to 2005, including “Heart of Whitenesse,” a 16th century supernatural spy thriller; and OTHER WORLDS, BETTER LIVES (Old Earth Books, 2008), seven novellas including “A Dozen Tough Jobs,” which transplants the twelve labors of Hercules to rural Mississippi in the 1920s.