My regular readers know that I’ve recently revisited some old-school fantasy by re-reading the Thieves’ World books. And one of the anthologies in the shared-universe fantasy series was called Tales from the Vulgar Unicorn, in reference to a pub by that name that served as a focal point of activity in the legendary city of Sanctuary. The hook, of course, being the oxymoronic imagery inherent in the perversion of the symbol of masculine purity.

Which brings me to another fantasy anthology from the 1980s that sits on my shelf near the Thieves’ World books; Unicorns!, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, was published in 1982. This was the first of the pair’s Magic Tales Anthology Series published by Ace (although they came out with Aliens! in 1980, that particular collection was published by Pocket Books, and as near as I can tell, is not considered to be included in the series of anthologies centered on fantasy beings, and later, science fiction beings.) (Disclosure notice: Gardner Dozois is one of my absolute favorite editors in the world of speculative fiction.)

Unicorns! gathers stories about one of fantasy’s most enduring and endearing creatures (although the horned horse seems to have taken a back seat to flying, fire-breathing lizards these days…) and the table of contents presents a nice selection of some of the most significant names in genre as of the early 1980s.

The introduction is a piece by Hugo-winner Avram Davidson, an entry in the author’s series of “Adventures in Unhistory,” commissioned specifically for the book. Although I like Avram Davidson and his work, this particular bit of (faux?) history is a bit…complex for me. It’s genius, but complex.

The stories in the anthology, with a few exceptions, fall into one of two categories: fun or serious. The fun stories are examples of masters of the craft playing with the concept of the unicorn’s place in mythology and/or science. The serious stories are examples of masters of the craft exploring the ideas of purity, virginal and otherwise.

The first of the stories is Theodore Sturgeon’s “The Silken Swift,” a tale that the editors call “one of the most renowned of all unicorn stories” and it is one of the latter, a serious tale of love and lust, of goodness and wickedness. I always associate Sturgeon with stories that highlight a cutting and wicked wit, but “The Silken Swift” is sweet and heart-touching, exploring and embracing inner-beauty.

L. Sprague DeCamp’s “Eudoric’s Unicorn” is one of the former, a clever and witty story. DeCamp was a driving force behind the development of the Swords and Sorcery branch of fantasy, someone who, in fact, helped make Conan into the man he is today. But this story comes from the other side of DeCamp, the master satirist.

“The Flight of the Horse” is a tale that you may have seen elsewhere, as it is the title piece for one of Larry Niven’s books, a collection of science fiction stories about Hanville Svetz, a time-traveling bureaucrat from the future who is tasked with collecting animals from the past. The problem is, something that the reader realizes but is hidden to Svetz, his forays into the past always seem to take him into a fantastical past, with mythological animals. He goes after a horse, he ends up with a unicorn, and doesn’t even realize the difference.

The next story is “On the Downhill Side” by Harlan Ellison, good old Uncle Harlan, who, as the editors put it, is “one of the most acclaimed and controversial figures in modern letters.” As with the Sturgeon story, this one is surprisingly sweet, a tear-jerker from the man who almost single-handedly brought cynicism to the genre of SF.

Thomas Burnett Swann’s, “The Night of the Unicorn” follows. I have to admit that I am unfamiliar with his work, although he was an accomplished fantasy author, writing in many settings around the world. His tale is set on a small island off the Yucatan peninsula, and shows that inner beauty, like the legend of the unicorn, is a universal theme.

Then comes “Mythological Beast,” by Stephen R. Donaldson. Am I the only person in the world who doesn’t like The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever? I didn’t like it then, when it first came out, and I tried to read it earlier this year, and I don’t like it now. But this story is not bad at all, and very much reminds me of something by Ray Bradbury.

Eric Norden is another contributor with whom I am not familiar, although his stories frequently appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is where his “The Final Quarry” was originally published. This story sticks in the brain, and comes to mind often, even today in the second decade of the 2000s, when I happen to pay attention to world news.

“Elfleda” is a story by one of the greats of the genre, Vonda N. McIntyre. The editors call it a “haunting and melancholy tale.” It brings mythology to science fiction in a way very reminiscent of Philip Jose Farmer’s World of Tiers series, and is another story that has lingered in my mind some three decades hence.

One of the hardest things for an artist to do well, whether in writing, or in song, or in painting, is to connect their story to everyday life. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The White Donkey,” it might not be our everyday life to which she connects her story of a unicorn – instead, it is the everyday life of a young girl in rural India – but connect it she does, as only a master could do. Above and beyond that, she does it in a piece that today would be classified as flash fiction, in under a thousand words.

Roger Zelazny’s “Unicorn Variations” is another one of the very fun stories in this anthology. It originally appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine, but was originally written after Dozois told Zelazny about this collection, and suggested that Zelazny write and sell a unicorn story, so that it would then qualify to be sold for the Unicorns! reprint anthology. “Unicorn Variations” was designed to also fit the criteria for an anthology of stories set in barrooms, AND an anthology of stories about chess. Zelazny sold it to Asimov’s, sold it on the reprint market to all three anthologies, used it as the cover piece for a collection of stories and essays, and won the Hugo with it. Wow.

Gardner Dozois is not only one of the best editors in the field, he’s also a fair hand at writing the stuff. “The Sacrifice” is another entry in this collection that would be classified today as flash fiction, and it’s a thought-provoking twist on the legend.

Frank Owen’s story is simply called, “The Unicorn.” It was originally published in 1952’s Weird Tales, and explores the creature as seen by the residents of rural China, the setting of so many of Owen’s pieces.

Included in this collection is “The Woman the Unicorn Loved,” by Gene Wolfe. It is a nice, solid piece, but it barely scratches the surface of Wolfe’s talent. The editors refer to Wolfe as “seriously underestimated and underappreciated…one of the best – perhaps the best – SF and fantasy writers…” “The Woman the Unicorn Loved” is worth reading, but if it’s a toss-up between this and Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series…go with the New Sun.

Bev Evans’ story, “The Forsaken,” is one written expressly for the anthology. It’s a fine one that fits well in the ‘serious’ category, but I’d love to know the story behind the story. The editors note that Beverly Evans is a new writer who has contributed to what sound like fantasy-horror publications, but other than that, she is a mystery, and I cannot find any information on her having published anything since.

The final story in the collection is “The Unicorn,” by T. H. White. The editors note that it is an excerpt from The Once and Future King, “but it also stands alone as an individual short story, and was once published as such by White.” As much as I like the editing of Dann and Dozois, I have to say that I would have preferred that this story appear in the first half of the book; it’s too depressing to serve as the closing to this anthology.

There is a nice touch to the book, after the stories are done. The editors have included a selected bibliography of unicorn resources, including novels, short stories, reference and art books. Dann and Dozois’ themed-anthology format was successful enough that it was followed by dozens more, such as Mermaids! and Dinosaurs! and even Unicorns II, although the exclamation point seems to have been dropped from the titles in the mid-1990s.


By Raymond K. Rugg

Raymond K. Rugg writes, reviews and researches SF. He is the editor of the speculative fiction anthology Life on the Rez: Science Fiction and Fantasy Inspired by Life on America’s Indian Reservations. A transplant from West, he lives in New England with his wife, author/historian Ariel Rodman.

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