Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Esc - By James Van Pelt


by Brenda Cooper

Some of us in the Northwest are lucky. Once every year, James Van Pelt comes to the Rainforest Writer’s Village, and we get to hear him teach. He is an educator by trade, and good at it. If we’re extra lucky, we join him on a walk through the amazing Cascade rainforest, with its cedar overstory and fern and water and moss understory. Sometimes we sit huddled together by a blazing hot fireplace insert in a bar that the entire group of us takes over for the cold, rainy days, and we write fiction while he writes fiction.

This is the context in which I first met James. He is one of our best writers. He mostly does short fiction, so what you are holding in your hand is some of the best current science fiction and fantasy available. Really. You don’t have to believe me. Just go visit his webpage and peruse his bibliography and notice how many of his short stories ended up in Year’s Best anthologies of one kind or another, or gained honorable mentions in them.

The thing I love the most about Jim’s writing is that it’s smart. The stories are true to their speculative roots, redolent with wonder, but they’ve also been touched by the literary brush. They contain well-crafted sentences and well-placed commas, solid workable structure, and confident prose.

The thing I love the next-most about Jim’s writing is that it’s varied. In this collection you’ll find a wide array of characters in different situations, times, and settings and with different problems. After reading at least forty or fifty of his stories, I’m pretty confident that Jim can pull off anything. I happen to know he has now sold over a hundred stories, and I’m sure they are very different one from another. This particular collection shows more of Jim’s range than any of his others; I was regularly surprised by the stories as I read through them.

When Jim asked me to write this introduction, I said “yes” in spite of the fact that there was no way I had time to read it all. But it felt like an honor to be asked. I had read all of his last collection, The Radio Magician and Other Stories, and provided a blurb for it. So I could do this. I would simply read a few of these stories, comment on those, and it would all be well.

I should have known better.

Despite my lack of time, I read the whole damned thing. Jim’s just that good a writer. Here are a few of my favorites:

The title story, “Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille,” is just magic. From the opening paragraph, I’m there with Jim’s character.

“Just Before Recess” is short and magical and strange. Good strange. I’m going to give you the opening line, just so you don’t miss this little gem. “Parker kept a sun in his desk.” Wow. Don’t you just have to go read that?

“Night Sweats” is the most subtle ghost story I have ever read.

My favorite story in the whole collection is “Howl Above the Din.” It’s incredibly bitter-sweet and evocative, and the tiniest bit sexy.

Closely in second place, this collection also includes the quirky commentary on the human heart called “Plant Life.”

I shall stop now. I could say something nice about every story in this book. But I think I should get out of the way so that you can start reading. Enjoy!

Flying in the Heart

of the Lafayette Escadrille

At 14,000 feet the November air rushes from the prop and buffets my head. Even with goggles, a thick, fur-lined leather cap and a layer of protective grease on my face, I am freezing. My cheeks tingle, my hands ache, and my knees crack with stiffness. My elbows clamp my ribs to hold in a little warmth as I admire the rising sun’s broad, lovely light shafts through the clouds and the long shadows across the Verdun sector’s snow-covered fields. I don’t mind the cold. Everything is white or purple except my brown and tan pursuit ship and my black twin Vickers machine guns.

The 110 horse power Le Rhone engine’s roar deafens me but is so steady that I have to concentrate to hear it. I fly, then, in a kind of silence. The clean air, the sun-bathed countryside, the two toned clouds cut into irregular halves of light and dark, and the Nieuport 17, an old and reliable partner now of three months, are my only company. I fly solo. Dawn