A Yuletide Universe: Sixteen Fantastical Tales

edited by Brian M. Thomsen

Published by Warner Books

256 pages, 2003




Santa by Any Other Name

Reviewed by Sienna Powers


The title is misleading. At least, it was to me. In an anthology of 16 Christmas tales from writers whose ranks include William Gibson, Clive Barker, Anne McCaffrey, Chet Williamson, L. Frank Baum, Connie Willis and Harlan Ellison I expected more fantastical leaps -- more otherworldly, even -- than what is delivered in A Yuletide Universe.

Not that the 16 fantastical tales in question aren't good: they are. However, despite representing several generations of fantastical writing, they are so tightly bound thematically, after a while you see little beyond a blur of Santa suits. Santa as Jesus, Santa as a spy, Santa hanging out on the beach in Bermuda, Santa with a penchant for Evian water, wearing birkenstocks and trying to save the planet in his own small way,

Creatively reinterpreting Santa isn't a bad thing. It's just that a little warning might have been in order because, clearly, when fully 13 of the 16 tales in question deal, on some level, with some aspect of Santa, we've got a fairly specific anthology on our hands.

The holdouts are notable. Clive Barker's offering, "The Yattering and Jack," brings us an even-tempered "gherkin importer" whose mother made a deal with -- and at some point cheated -- the devil. The Yattering is an invisible demon whom the netherpowers have installed in Jack's house. Being that the Yattering is only a minor demon, he is confined to the house for the duration of his assignment. He is charged with driving Jack insane, at which point it will be easy to send him towards the downward spiral that ends in hell.

After six months of impossible boredom for the Yattering -- Jack won't respond to even the best of the Yattering's demonish antics -- it all comes to a head on Christmas Day, but not before the Yattering has reanimated the turkey cooking in the oven and set the Christmas tree to spinning like a giant -- and very dangerous -- top. "The Yattering and Jack" is classic Barker. The writer manages, even in the short format, to deliver some characteristic gruesome edge of your seat moments. And it all concludes in a manner that is appropriate to the season. And Santa never rears his head.

Another Santa-less story is Maureen F. McHugh's "A Foreigner's Christmas in China," which gives an Asiatic nod to Dickens. There's more Dickensian shenanigans in Howard Waldrop's "Household Words; Or, The Powers-That-Be" which is really an encounter with Charles Dickens and his much-loved Christmas tale in an alternate universe. First published in Amazing Stories in 1993, this version comes with an afterword which begins with the line: "Here's how I killed Amazing Stories, world's oldest SF magazine." While the story is engaging, the afterword is especially fun, as it gives us some insight into both the process of storytelling as well as storyplacing in the world of SF.

All of the other stories in A Yuletide Universe feature Santa in one way or another. From a very short story -- almost a prose poem -- from Neil Gaiman, who apparently originally wrote it as part of his personal Christmas greeting to friends. "Older than sin," Gaiman begins, "and his beard could grow no whiter. He wanted to die."

William Gibson's "Cyber-Claus" is also very short, though quite powerful. And, in style and substance, very much a postcard of the type of material on which Gibson has built his reputation.

Richard Christian Matheson's "Holiday" (which originally appeared in Twilight Zone in 1982) brings us Santa on the beach, half-cut and making a nuisance of himself to our narrator. It is, however, a completely charming story and it resolves in a satisfying way. And Christmassy.

Donald E. Westlake's "Nackles" does not directly involve Santa except that the title beast (Nackles) is "to Santa what Satan is to God, what Ahriman is to Ahura Mazda, what the North Wind is to the South Wind. Nackles is the new Evil." The story is memorable, including about a page of philosophizing on the nature of Santa as a god that could be expanded into its own book: "He certainly seems like a god. Consider: He is omniscient; he knows every action of every child, for good or evil. ... He is superhuman, or at least non-human, though conceived of as having human shape. He is aided by a corps of assistants who do not have completely human shapes. He rewards Good and punishes Evil. And, most important, he is believed in utterly by several million people, most of them under the age of ten. Is there any qualification for godhood that Santa Claus does not possess?"

My favorite in the collection is a delightfully insane piece by Harlan Ellison, "Santa Claus vs. S.P.I.D.E.R." Here we have Santa as a superspy -- a sort of James Bond in red -- who, in the assignment outlined in the story, must do nothing less than save the world. As it turns out, Ellison's Santa isn't at all portly: it's just all the super high tech gear he has under his suit that makes him look so huge. Without it, he's svelte, fit and ready to rumble. Imagine this:

The red-suited Santa Claus trudged across the open square in front of the Montgomery state building, clanging his little brass bell. The Santa Claus was fat, jolly, bearded, and possibly the deadliest man in the world.

There are many lines like this in "Santa Claus vs. S.P.I.D.E.R." Images that just make you howl. Ellison penned the story in 1968 and, should you read it, you won't need me to have told you that: some of the major politicos of the day show up in really odd places. But the references don't detract from the loony fun of the story. "Santa Claus vs. S.P.I.D.E.R." alone is worth the price of admission.

Brian M. Thomsen is a novelist who is also turning into an excellent anthologist. He is the author of the novels Once Around the Realms and The Mage in the Iron Mask. He is also the author of the critical anthology The American Fantasy Tradition. In A Yuletide Universe Thomsen has given us a wonderful gift: reconnecting us with the Christmas spirit in an entirely fantastical way. | December 2003


Sienna Powers is a transplanted Calgarian who lives and works in Vancouver, B.C. She is a writer and conceptual artist.