Ghost World

There is a pronounced strain of Southern Gothic lurking beneath the bland commodified facade of the contemporary fantasy field. Writers such as Andy Duncan, Howard Waldrop, Michael Bishop, Joe Lansdale and Neil Barrett have all worked Southern culture organically into their tales. But while Faulkner and Welty and O'Connor might be the grandparents of such below-the-Mason-Dixon-line fantastical literature, the parents are television and pop music, cartoons and comic books. Now, with his eighth novel, Perfect Circle (Small Beer; paperback, $15), Sean Stewart delivers an urban fantasy that is the perfect amalgam of cursed past and haunted present, of classic ghost tales and up-to-the-minute cinematic riffs.

Will "Dead" Kennedy has been able to see ghosts since childhood. That talent, along with his innate flaws of character -- stubbornness, perversity -- has left him, at age 32, a burnt-out failure. Divorced, jobless, literally haunted, Will hangs on to life by two threads: love for his daughter, Megan, and love for the music of his youth -- REM, Bauhaus, Warren Zevon, Joy Division et al. (The book's title derives from an REM song rife with intimations of mortality.) But Will's precariously poised life is about to turn unstable, when he is contacted by a cousin who wants him to chase a very personal ghost. Soon Will is facing the dissolution of all he holds dear.

Stewart's mastery of Will's first-person narration is unflinching and unfaltering. The voice conjured here is absolutely authentic and affecting, as is the portrait of Houston, Will's stomping grounds. Will's vast extended family of oddballs and losers and honest toilers imparts a John-Crowleyesque heft to the book. And his treatment of the ghosts -- "Ghosts don't do things to you. Ghosts make you do unspeakable things to yourself" -- is truly eerie. Readers familiar with the quotidian spookiness of master English horror writer M.R. James will find similar frissons here, but married to the gritty demimonde in the novels of American noir writer James Crumley, resulting in a fusion of black humor and pathos, blood and ectoplasm.

Secret Agent 666

Anticipation ran high when Charles Stross's first novel began to be serialized in the pages of the British magazine Spectrum SF in 2001. Stross had already stunned the field with several hyper-inventive short stories of an amped-up, cyberpunkish nature. Surely his first longer work would be more of the same. But Stross was too canny a creator to go for that easy angle. The book turned out to be a bizarre yet effective yoking of the spy and horror genres. Now widely available for the first time as a handsome hardcover, The Atrocity Archives (Golden Gryphon, $24.95) has been supplemented with an original novella -- "The Concrete Jungle" -- and a perceptive essay in which Stross explains the origins of his hybrid and the natural affinity the two genres have for each other.

Bob Howard is a "darkside hacker" who works for a secret British agency known as the Laundry. Since 1953, when computer theorist Alan Turing cracked the mathematical code leading to other dimensions, the Laundry has been on the front lines guarding against supernatural incursions. Promoted to the dangerous job of field agent, Howard eventually finds himself going through an extra-dimensional portal in Amsterdam to battle entities who consider the Earth a tasty meal. In "The Concrete Jungle," our reluctant spy has to deal with an internal traitor who threatens to turn every CCTV camera in Britain into the equivalent of a petrifying Medusa.

Like his peer Cory Doctorow, Stross has an ironic Generation X sensibility conditioned, in his case, by time spent in the simultaneously thrilling and boring world of information technology. In The Atrocity Archives, Stross's genius lies in devoting fully as much time to the bureaucratic shenanigans of the Laundry as he does to its thaumaturgic mission. What with all the persnickety time-charts and useless meetings Howard has to deal with, it's a wonder the world gets saved at all.

Bride of the Fairies

The mode of "urban fantasy," wherein contemporary settings and characters are blended with the supernaturally outre, is a tricky one to bring off. Both components -- the mundane and the fantastical -- have to have the same ontological weight and narrative impact, with the earthly side of the tale acting as ballast and the fantastical side providing the buoyancy. Too much of one and you crash to the ground; too much of the other and you ascend helplessly into the frigid stratosphere.

In The Wild Reel (Tor; paperback, $14.95), Paul Brandon veers a bit toward the earthbound without actually losing his lift entirely. All in all, his book is an affable, readable, somewhat silly romance that never quite succeeds in capturing the majesty latent in its theme of Faeries versus humans. It aspires to be "A Midsummer Night's Dream," but ends up as Artemis Fowl, an ostensibly hip and postmodern fantasy that sacrifices the charms of the medium for some faddish glitter.

Natasha "Natty" Newlyn is a beautiful, successful Irish painter whose sessions in the studio are mysteriously accompanied by ancient airs and dances -- "the wild reel." That's because the Faerie King, Finvarra, is secretly wooing her as his bride. But Finvarra has an enemy in the form of Tu'lloch, the queen of another Faerie court, and Natty could end up destroyed by the royal rivalry. On a trip to Australia, Natty meets a roguish musician named Ally and falls in love, further threatening Finvarra's desires. The stage is set for a variety of pursuits, entrapments, duels in dreamland and eventual disappointment for one or more members of the menage.

Brandon's handling of the Faerie-folk is decidedly comic, with scenes of supernally handsome elves watching televised cricket matches and picking up women at Aussie singles' bars. This does not result in any deepening of their iconographic luster. The relationships among Natty and her friends are okay, in a "Friends" kind of way. But the intersection of the two sets of characters doesn't take place physically until the novel is nearly over. (Finvarra's preferred method of wooing is through dreams.) If only Finvarra had abducted and ravished Natty on page one, perhaps the novel could have delved deeper into what supposedly bonds the fey and their victims.

Hope is a Weapon

Ignore the techno-thriller packaging and Ludlumesque title on Bruce Sterling's latest novel, The Zenith Angle (Del Rey, $24.95). Even though the book takes place during the very recent past and focuses on realpolitik events, what you're getting here is still Sterling's patented, hi-octane brand of gleeful, shrewd, speculative, cynical, closely observed, micro-detailed analysis of how the world works, as found in all of his books, whether they're labeled sf, journalism or futurism.

Catalyzed by the events of Sept. 11, Derek "Van" Vandeveer, genius computer scientist, becomes a government cyber-warrior, plunging into a world of agency acronyms, inter-departmental feuding, black budgets and harebrained schemes to save the West from collapse. Naturally enough, his marriage to the wonderful Dottie, a famous astronomer, begins to suffer. But the transformations unleashed in Van by the war on terror are irreversible. And Van is hell-bent on turning himself into a weapon.

Sterling's grasp of the dynamics of government equals his hard-won understanding of human nature. Van's marriage receives as much attention as the fate of the free world. Although the plot is somewhat rambling, culminating in a set-piece that is not extensively foreshadowed, the tale never lags. Van's various rites of passage provide structure enough. And by the end of the book, just when we fear he's developed too hard a shell, he rediscovers that hope and optimism are the most efficient weapons in his armory, providing an emotionally satisfying climax to the tale. Fueled by bravura hyperbole about the clash of civilizations and genuinely tender domestic insights, The Zenith Angle offers wisdom and solace, thrills and laughter, for a struggling world.

The Worlds-wide Web

Tony Daniel's new book, Superluminal (Eos, $25.95), a sequel to Metaplanetary (2001), is the kind of recomplicated postmodern space opera that requires literally 60 pages of appendices to totally explicate its characters, technology, plot and milieu. Fully assimilating this book requires a good deal of attention, concentration and creative interpolation on the part of the reader. But its rewards are commensurate with its demands. Daniel has created an awesomely weird yet logical future that bears little resemblance to any lazy off-the-shelf scenarios.

In this future the Inner Planets of our solar system have been webbed together by a network of infinitely strong cables on which live billions of people who have forsaken planetary residence: the Met. Life in the Met is rather authoritarian. The outer reaches of the solar system play host to a lesser population of rebels, freethinkers, computer intelligences and other "deviants." Both segments of humanity make use of the "grist," a kind of pervasive nanotechnology that infiltrates both bodies and the environment. War has broken out between the two incompatible realms.

Using brief chapters and quick cuts, Daniel divides his perspective on this conflict among a host of diverse characters. Li Ping Singh is a scientist on the verge of making a war-ending breakthrough. Rebellious 16-year-old Aubry Graytor is looking for her captured mother, Danis, who happens to be a disembodied "free convert," a form of artificial intelligence existing only virtually. Colonel Theory, another free convert, has fallen in love with the mortal female Jennifer Fieldguide. Dozens of others are just as intriguingly suprahuman.

Writing with a dense clarity, Daniel renders his 31st-century battles and human dilemmas utterly fascinating. Scenes such as Aubry's attack on the concentration camp on Mars where her mother is held possess a kind of luminosity seen also in the work of Scott Westerfeld. This is one entrancing web from which escape is hardly desirable. *

Paul Di Filippo is the author of an erotic fantasy novel, "A Mouthful of Tongues."