Horse of a Different Color is, by my count, Howard Waldrop’s seventh collection of previously uncollected stories, and collects stories that first appeared between 2003 and 2010. This is a slim volume; Howard was never prolific, and his stories have never come easily to him, but during this time he also had some pretty serious health issues to deal with, which cut into what productivity there was.
In the ten stories that make up this collection, the usual Waldrop themes are on display. Easily the field’s most eccentric and idiosyncratic writer, Howard fishes the most obscure streams of history and popular culture, blending them in a gonzo but laconic fashion that rewards the informed reader. But that’s not to say that Howard’s stories are pure fun. Sure, my favourite story of the book is “Avast, Abaft!,” where the Pirates of Penzance meet Captain Hook in the surreal and brain-explodey fashion of such Waldrop stories. But the quieter stories can pack considerable emotional heat. Take “The Wolf-man of Alcatraz,” which mashes up exactly what you think it does, or “Ninieslando,” a devastating story about Esperanto-speakers on the front lines of World War I.
In Howard’s stories, forgotten character actors appear in alternate worlds whose difference is so subtle, mentioned in passing five pages ago, that you probably missed it. A classic example is the title story, “The Horse of a Different Color (That Your Rode in On),” which features a sixth Marx brother (who in real life died in infancy), vaudeville, pantomime horses, and the Grail quest. Along with “Why The Ile Fit You,” which opens the collection and also features one of Howard’s beloved character actors, or “The Bravest Girl I Ever Knew …,” which invents a post-Kong life for Ann Darrow, the meat of the story is well below the surface: you have to watch carefully or you’ll miss it.
That hey-wait-what-just-happened-here also takes place “The King of Where-I-Go,” a terribly sweet story of a brother and sister that starts with polio and ends somewhere quite different. At an emotional level it’s arguably the most effective story in the book.
The stories of Horse of a Different Color don’t all have the firepower of my favourite Waldrop stories, but there’s still some very good stuff here. It’s not a good entry point, though. If you’re new to Waldrop, you might start with his first collection, Howard Who?, or the two-volume best-of collection from Old Earth Books: Things Will Never Be the Same (short stories) and Other Worlds, Better Lives (novellas). Everything else is, alas, out of print.