Reading the stories in Melissa Pritchard's fourth collection of short fiction is like eating eight gorgeous confections, rich and dense. Best to savor these mordant, witty "curi-oddities" slowly, cleansing the palate between each tale.
Pritchard's beguiling stories span three centuries and take place in wildly diverse settings: a Russian convent, Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, an Italian anatomy studio, the largest military hospital in the world, a Nuremberg tower that imprisons a feral teenager, a Virginia hotel once home to Edgar Allan Poe, the New York Public Library and an opulent New Delhi hotel in a sea of poverty.
The stories feature historical personages, some in starring, others in subsidiary roles. Among these are the Russian saint Pelagia; Annie Oakley and George Armstrong Custer; Italian physicist Felice Fontana; U.S. naval surgeon Capt. Clarence J. Brown; and Norbert Pearlroth, fact checker for Robert Leroy Ripley's "Believe It or Not" syndicate.
Studded with arcane words, apt and ingenious metaphors, Pritchard's exuberant prose is perfectly suited to carry the antic freight of these often bizarre, always cerebral stories. Whether she's depicting Sitting Bull's bittersweet adoption of Annie Oakley, the "barbarous irony" of Capt. Brown's mission to mend soldiers only to send them back to the front to be blown apart later, or the macabre fate of a beautiful Florentine prostitute's body parts, like Ripley, Pritchard is having fun with humanity's "vast peculiarities." Sly echoes from story to story give cohesion to the collection. Waxen figures appear and reappear, as do white horses, honeybees, girls' schools, museums housing oddities, asylums, even TV news broadcasts of bizarre killings.
The title story relates the toilsome days of the "Appendage," Pearlroth, who, for 52 years, until his rear end grows carbuncles, pores over books in the New York Public Library, unearthing weird facts to amaze and titillate Ripley's audience.
The novella-length "Capt. Brown and the Royal Victoria Hospital" depicts a dutiful man in a tepid marriage, whose career places him in charge of a huge British hospital where he's to prepare for trainloads of wounded soldiers in the aftermath of D-day. Finally he has a chance to break out of his tedium by helping a young Parisian resistance fighter elude capture; his decision reverberates throughout the rest of his life.
"Pelagia, Holy Fool" tells of the trajectory of a village nitwit to sainthood. After a childhood illness, the once-lovely Pela becomes a filthy dervish, spinning miracles that bless and heal. Despite her "unhygienic humps and hummocks," she's visited by streams of petitioners, even the tsar.
This is a fulsome compendium of ripping good yarns.
Kathryn Lang is former senior editor of the SMU Press in Dallas.