By Mark L. Blackman: On the evening of Wednesday, February 19, the monthly Fantastic Fiction at KGB Readings Series hosted award-winning authors James Patrick Kelly and P. Djèlí Clark at its longtime venue, the definitely Red Room at the 2nd floor KGB Bar in Manhattan’s East Village.
The event opened with Series co-host Ellen Datlow (fighting through a cold) welcoming the crowd and announcing upcoming readers:
- March 18: Robert Levy, Daniel Braum
- April 15: Michael Cisco, Clay MacLeod Chapman
- May 20: Leanna Renee Hieber, Ilana C. Myers
- June 17: N.K. Jemisin, Kenneth Schneyer
- July 15: Mike Allen, Benjamin Rosenbaum
She concluded by introducing the evening’s first reader.
P. (for Phenderson) Djèlí Clark (and yes, it’s a penname) is the author of the fantasy novellas The Black God’s Drums and The Haunting of Tram Car 015, and “The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” a short story that earned him both a Nebula and Locus Award, and was a finalist for both the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Short Story and the 2019 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. As it was Black History Month and just after Presidents’ Day (formerly Washington’s Birthday), his opening offering was from that story, the first six teeth.
Washington’s famous choppers were not wooden (and certainly not carved from that legendary cherry tree), but were made from his own teeth that had fallen out, animal teeth and slaves’ teeth purchased from slave-owners. (His dentures, one might say, were the original George Washington bridge.) Clark, an historian in the other part of his professional life, imagines a mouthful of supernatural backstories for the titular dentation, of African warriors and conjuremen (wisdom teeth?), a strange counterpoint to the barbaric practice.
He followed up by reading from an advance bound manuscript of his forthcoming (in October or November) dark fantasy novella Ring Shout. In an alternate 1922 Macon, Georgia, a trio of black women – a bootlegger with a magic sword, a sharpshooter World War vet, and a “Harlem Hellfighter” – hunt Klansmen (“Ku Kluxers”). The original Klan’s sheets were intended to make them seem ghostlike, adding to the terror they induced, but here their hell-raising is given a literal twist, evil, malevolent sorcery. (While Clark didn’t say, in his story, it seems that D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation cast an actual spell drawing on the hatred and ugliness at America’s heart, leading to the rise and rebirth of the Klan … much as, absent the sorcery, it did in ours.) Advisory: there was much use of the n-word (small “n”) and “graphic language.”
After an intermission, Mercurio David Rivera, filling in for co-host Matthew Kressel (who was off on another island), introduced the second featured reader.
James Patrick Kelly has been honored with the Hugo Award for his novelettes “Think Like a Dinosaur” and “1016 to 1,” and the Nebula Award for his novella Burn. His most recent books are the novella King of the Dogs, Queen Of the Cats (which he described as a “romantic comedy” set on another planet in the far future, where dogs and cats have been uplifted, mostly in a circus), and a collection, The Promise of Space. (Like Clark, he too likes secret history; with John Kessel, he co-edited the anthology The Secret History of Science Fiction.)
Despite his description of it, he did not read from King of the Dogs, Queen Of the Cats, but instead a story so new that his wife (who was present) hadn’t read it, and that didn’t yet have a title (working titles include “Showdown,” “5°C” and, maybe seriously not in contention, “OK, Boomer”). Set in New Hampshire, it’s a future of cybernetic prosthesis and rejuvenation drugs, where rangers hunt Boomers (the only generation, he said, everyone agrees on hating – Kelly is one, as am I – but I thought it was Millennials whom everyone agrees on hating), like Willow’s great-grandmother.
Datlow closed the evening with the traditional exhortation to support the Bar by buying a drink. Prior to the readings, as usual, she snapped photos of the readers and the audience. Her photos of the event may be seen on Flickr now, and later at the Series website, http://www.kgbfantasticfiction.org/.