Molly Tanzer’s A Pretty Mouth is so much damn fun! Tanzer runs through a variety of modes, from amusement to historical drama, and from playful smut to occult mystery. Tremendously entertaining throughout, the four stories and short novel form a linked sequence examining a strange family’s centuries-long history. Each installment follows a different pair of Calipash twins (the family’s children always arrive in twinned pairs) in various historical eras. This thread binds the stories into an almost novelistic whole, while the shifts in time and setting gives Tanzer a chance to play around with literary influences and try out storytelling flavors.
These commence with the Wodehouse-inspired lead-off, “A Spotted Trouble at Dolor-on-the Downs,” a charming, funny and inventive mashup. Tanzer doesn’t just riff on Wodehouse’s style or flavor. Bertie Wooster and his valet Jeeves actually appear, and end up mixed in a “high society meets secret society” tale with a strong Lovecraftian flavor.
“The Hour of the Tortoise” is a gothic tale about Chelone, herself a writer of gothic fiction, whose life and stories frequently intertwine. The third piece, “The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins,” appeared in the Historical Lovecraft anthology and was reprinted in the first Book of Cthulhu, so will be familiar to some readers of Lovecraftian anthologies.
The long novella which gives the book its title follows 17th century university boys seeking entertainment and getting into mischief. Gradually the Calipash influence exposes young Henry Milliner to a world of gradually revealed debauchery, mystery and secrecy. In the finale, the Roman era setting of “Damnatio Memoriae” shows how far back the Calipash line extends, and reveals something about the nature of the family’s curse. As a self-contained story it may be the least compelling in the book, but its presence is justified as a sort of origin tale, shedding light upon the rest.
In addition to the oft-mentioned influences of Wodehouse, Edward Gorey and Aubrey Beardsley, I found much of A Pretty Mouth reminiscent of the zany-sexy-scary-funny cinema of the late Ken Russell, such as Lair of the White Worm or Salome’s Last Dance. Overall, this is a crazy book — that is, a giddy sort of crazy, where the reader sees early on it’s not just random silliness, but guided by a great inventive intelligence.
In an era when most emerging authors seek only to chase the latest market trend, Tanzer does something completely, strangely different. This book’s charm derives from the way she successfully strikes such a wide range of notes. It’s charming, intelligent and cleverly crafted, a sure sign we’re in for many fresh and memorable things from Molly Tanzer in the future. Overall, A Pretty Mouth is one of the better debut collections of recent years, and certainly one of the most distinctive.