I picked up the latest issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction because it had M. Rickert’s new story “The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece.” I’ll buy anything with M. Rickert’s name on it. I wish F&SF had a “Just the Issues with M. Rickert in It” subscription option. I have every issue with her stories since 2006 (except for one I’ve misplaced somehow). I have both her collections, Map of Dreams and Holiday, and copies of her stories in Ideomancer and Interfictions 2. I’ve spoken about my love of her writing here, and other places. Yes, on my list of Favorite Writers, she is #1. The very top.
I say all this so that you can have of sense of just how much it really and truly pains me to say: I wasn’t that into “The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece.”
Most of you know the standard I have for my short-story reading experience: That Aimee Bender quote I use all the time, “I want to be violated by insight.” The thing is, unless I’m seriously romanticizing my relationship with Rickert’s writing, I can’t think of a single one of her stories that didn’t give me that feeling… before this one.
Make no mistake: in my usual 5* rating system, this one would get a 4, but only because I typically round off. If I had to be accurate (as much as one can be with a subjective rating), I’d give this a 3.8. It had every bit of the dark beauty I’ve come to love in Rickert’s stories. The imagery at the end blew me away. But I think my damage has to do with Rickert’s use of the third-person omniscient viewpoint.
I’m grateful that she tries to shy away from old-school “one POV, section break, next POV” and attempt something a little different. At the sentence level, Rickert really does a skillful job weaving in and out of each character’s thoughts. But as a whole, it muddied the waters in two different ways for me. It messed with my sense of time, for one. And for another, I never knew for which characters to really concern myself by the end of it.
Not counting the corpses (C’mon, that’s not a spoiler. Look at the title. You knew there were going to be corpses in it.), the story had a cast of three: The Corpse Painter, the town sheriff, and the sheriff’s wife, and I was in one of their heads at various points of the story. And while most of the story seemed to be about the relationship between the sheriff and the Corpse Painter, the real punch of the story came in the last scene between the sheriff and his wife. The more I think about it, I’m wondering if Rickert putting me into the wife’s head was her way of attempting to connect a reader with the wife as an expedient way to set up the payoff at the end, while still maintaining most of the story’s focus on The Corpse Painter and the sheriff?
Who knows? I’m clearly rambling at this point. I’m just having trouble pinning down my exact feelings about this story. To say “disappointed” or “let down” seems far too harsh. Maybe this is a case where I just need to appreciate the attempt to do something different and be okay with the fact that maybe the clearest way to sum up my feelings is, “I just didn’t dig it.” After all, Rickert is still my #1 favorite writer, I’ll still buy anything with her name on it, and if there was an “M. Rickert Only” F&SF subscription option, I’d snatch it up in a heartbeat.