Jay Russell

Pumpkin Books / 305 pages / 1999


What would you make of a book that encompasses splatterpunk, alternate fairy tales, literary criticism, and Elvis? A better question might be what you would think of its author. An answer to both would be one-of-a-kind.

Now, some of you might already know Russell’s work from the novels Blood, Celestial Dogs, orĀ Burning Bright. If not, Waltzes and Whispers is a prime vehicle for getting to know him through a wild array of his short fiction.

Remember when you learned your first words of profanity, and what a kick you got out of shocking people with them? Remember when you wore ludicrously large pants and pierced your body parts just to upset anyone you saw as too conventional? Good, then you must know exactly what splatterpunk was about and I needn’t go into actually discussing it. Look at my repellent tattoo! That about covers it.

Let’s move on to some of the more complex entries.

Would you think a zombie story could break your heart? Neither did I until I came across “Undiscovered Countries.” If the dead come back to life, the reunions are not going to be the tender embraces survivors might wish for. If they come back all at once, it’s going to be the kind of thing the authorities are going to step in to prevent. So, how do you deal with the death of a loved one in this new police-state?

Maybe you’d be more comfortable thinking about a world where things are not quite as they are now. Of course, you wouldn’t know the difference while you were living in that world, but what difference would the erasure of one sports hero make? Or if the fairy tales you grew up on had a radically different ending? Or if you learned that the simple act of erasure was available to all? Tiny changes or wide swathes of eradication — any modification might be the one that crushes us all.

Erased. That is the staggering realisation of the most gripping piece in the collection, “Lily’s Whisper.” This is one of two stories that deal with the nightmare of the Holocaust and its aftermath.

Reading this wrenching tale of survivors and their loss, it becomes painfully clear just what we all lost when millions of people were “erased” from this world. It is not just the symphonies, literary classics, and leaps of science that were denied us. All those earthshaking things were never to be, but, perhaps more importantly, the simple, mundane bits of life were wiped away.

Lame jokes and touching toasts, a smile on the street, an energetic baby making faces at you over an airline seat, the card that would have made you smile when you thought you never would again — these are just a hint of the countless moments that were stolen from all of us. Priceless pain and pleasure in the people a single man decided we didn’t need.

Read Waltzes and Whispers and enjoy it, because it is worth your time. And if you carry nothing else away from it, remember Lily.