Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy
Subterranean Press: 2008
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award: Best Short Story
"Caverns of Mystery" is one of Kage Baker's two World Fantasy Award nominated fictions (the other is her novel The House of the Stag), and frankly, I'm not sure the story is worth the nomination. Let me back up.
This is a quiet story told from the limited third person perspective of an unnamed girl (unless I missed it). The girl's parents have rented a cottage by the sea for a family vacation. This is important for the titular caverns of mystery, but equally important is that the girl sees "phantoms" which nobody else can see.
A thing crawled up out of a creekbed, a skinwalker with a coyote's head, and it turned to watch as the station wagon approached. Meeting her gaze, it leaped at the door; she pulled her glasses off and covered her right eye as it clawed at the window. She turned her face away, refusing to see it.There is a certain amount of question as to what, if anything the phantoms can do. Another phantom, a pirate, "smiled at her, tenderly". Some seem to be harmless, but the girl is concerned when they seem angry.
"Caverns of Mystery" involves stories and local folklore, a small tourist-trap of a cavern, over-protective parents, and the sort of friendship that can only happen while vacationing away from home.
The story features Baker's usual quietly graceful writing. Seldom is Baker ever flashy in her storytelling, but "Caverns of Mystery" fails to deliver...well, mystery, or wonder, or anything to compel readers to want to commit to the story. Obviously that statement cannot be entirely true given the World Fantasy Award nomination, but "Caverns of Mystery" isn't even the best story in Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy, let alone one of the best five fantasy stories of 2008.
The struggle here is how to articulate this. "Caverns of Mystery" isn't bad, it's just ordinary. It's the sort of story that if I wasn't trying to talk about the World Fantasy Award nominations, or of it was not nominated (which it shouldn't have been), I would never have mentioned the story at all. It's just a story. Competent. Well written. Ordinary. Slightly boring.