Review: Nightmare #72

Nightmare #72, September 2018

NM72

Original Fiction:

  • “House of Small Spiders” by Weston Ochse (novelette)
  • “True Crime” by M. Rickert (short story)

True Crime” is a single, 971-word, non-speculative block of short sentences babbling about how a Women is killed by a Men.

Much more interesting (and therefore, ultimately, disappointing) is “House of Small Spiders.” Susan’s cutting herself in her closet as the story opens and we find out its related to the fact that her mother’s recently stabbed herself to death on top of the washing machine. We later find out that that odd detail is connected to more tragedy. Meanwhile, dad vividly attacks a couple of religious proselytizers and we learn about blood, ideas, and houses with souls and spiders. The bursts of horrific violence were quite effective and there are some nice observations and ambiguities or paradoxes but the villain ultimately comes off as clownish with incongruously pedestrian motives, the “morality” of the “heroine” is hard to take, and the resolution is far too talky.

(There’s another, arguably smaller, problem with the end which is hard to articulate without spoilers. And, while I’m at it, Craftsman was a Sears brand which is now sold at Lowe’s via Stanley Black & Decker, not Home Depot (as far as I know), “condemning them that it is their fault”  isn’t good English, and the extra word after the final sentence in my copy isn’t good proof-reading.)

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2018 Best of the Best: 2017 Stories Selected for Multiple Year’s Bests

This doesn’t contain any information not already in “Expanded Collated Contents of the Year’s Bests (2017 Stories, Links)” but, because that list might look dauntingly large and a little busy, here’s a list of the twenty-six stories which appear in two or more of the nine “Year’s Bests.” (Twenty of these stories are available online.) For clarity, they’re just alphabetized by title with no distinction beyond an asterisk which indicates I’ve noted them to one degree or another on this blog.

Review of Black Static #64 for Tangent

If you’re not picky about genre, this issue of Black Static is a good one. A third of it is non-fantastic horror dealing with insanity. Oddly, the fantastic stories, while generally very readable, aren’t as good except for the last (fourth overall), which is superb and the best of the issue.

Full review at Tangent: Black Static #64, July/August 2018.

Recommended:

  • “The Blockage” by Jack Westlake (non-speculative horror short story)
  • “The Monstrosity in Love” by Sam Thompson (dark fantasy short story)

Honorable mention:

  • “Why We Don’t Go Back” by Simon Avery (non-speculative horror novelette)

Review: Nightmare #71

Nightmare #71, August 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Dead Air” by Nino Cipri (novelette)
  • “Crook’s Landing, by Scaffold” by G.V. Anderson (dark fantasy short story)

Dead Air” is listed at 10,204 words, but I only get 7,643. It’s a novelette, either way. It features Miss Nosy and Miss Dark Secret (basically the extent of the characterization) and details their romantic relationship and how Nosy talks Dark Secret into returning to her hometown of Garbled and re-visiting the scene of The Accident. Naturally, horror ensues. All this is told through the narrative gimmick of audio recordings and a third character giving really elaborate stage directions.

Crook’s Landing” is much more appealing though I should disclaim that I’m a sucker for posthumous fantasies (this isn’t really a horror story or even as dark a fantasy as it might be). In this “Bill? Barry?” is hanged two days after his younger brother and, as a crook, ends up in the titular place. Most people suffer almost instantaneous amnesia but BillBarry holds fast to his brother’s memory and looks all over Crook’s Landing and other afterplaces trying to find him. Finally, the murderers from Cutthroat Cove arrive to offer a deal. It’s all a little pat and has some really sentimental murderers and some other issues, but it was a decent read.

SF Miscellany: Magazines/Books, WorldCon Kerfuffle, Grand Masters

Over the past month or so, I was struck by the discrepancy between magazine and book content, aspects of book marketing, the latest in the interminable line of WorldCon fights, and the deaths of great and honored SF luminaries which prompted thoughts on who remains to be honored. I thought these might become detailed and considered posts but, as usual, I just went with a hodge-podge. I am sure about the last section, though.

Where the Readers Aren’t

With “How Do You Buy Your Science Fiction in 2018?Auxiliary Memory brought us another fascinating post, this time about the science fiction market. I was also most struck by slide 35, though for my own reasons.

Slide35-1024x768

(Before I even start, I have to note that there are several problems with the slide. First, I have no idea how temporal/qualitative descriptions like “Classics,” subject genres like “Military,” source categories like “TV… Adaptations,” structural categories like “Anthologies,” and formal genres like “Short Stories” are treated as equivalent. Second, I have no idea why “Anthologies” and “Short Stories” appear twice, the second time combined with each other. I also have no idea what the difference between “Alternate History” and “Alternative History” could be. So the slide has to be taken with a grain of salt but I still think it demonstrates some general truth.)

Here’s the question prompted by the slide which should occur to all SF magazine editors and lovers of short fiction: if LGBT, Alternate History, Steampunk, “Metaphysical & Visionary” and Time Travel sell so little and Military, Adventure, Space Opera, First Contact, Genetic Engineering, Galactic Empire, Hard Science Fiction, Colonization, and Space Exploration sell more, why does the vast majority of magazine (especially webzine) science fiction I read deal with the former categories (or similar) more than the latter and might this be a contributing factor in the increasing irrelevance of short fiction? (The sole reach for a wide readership I see in magazine SF is the negative and probably incidental one of Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopian.)

There are probably many answers of various kinds but one that occurs to me is that, in these days of low overhead and a market of dozens and dozens of magazines, all that’s needed is a fanatically loyal niche readership, much like a cable TV show vs. the shared culture of the pre-cable era. But if people want short SF to compete in the general marketplace and get it something like the honor it had and deserves (which is admittedly tough for several reasons), it might be better to go where the general SF reader’s hearts and minds are.

Variety Is the Spice

If all is not ideal in short fiction, there are issues at book length, too. As always, I was struck by the nature of the books listed in Locus’ “New Books” posts. Saying that I’m looking for a non-YA SF singleton doesn’t sound too restrictive. According to the last two posts from the 17th and 24th (which are very typical in these matters) this is what I have to choose from:

  • Satirical fantasy novel…series
  • Steampunk fantasy novel…third in a series
  • Epic fantasy novel, second in a series
  • Fantasy novel, first in a series
  • Fantasy novel, first in a series
  • Fantasy novel, second in a series
  • Fantasy novel, second in a series
  • Fantasy novel, third in a trilogy
  • Alternate history fantasy novel
  • Contemporary fantasy novel
  • Horror novel, first in a series
  • [YA] SF novel… first in a series
  • [YA] Short SF novel
  • [YA] SF novel
  • Young adult SF novel
  • Young adult SF novel
  • Young adult sf novel
  • Humorous space opera novel, third in a series
  • Military SF novel, third in a series
  • SF novel, second in a series
  • SF thriller
  • Collection of [a series of] 18 stories…about a giant mountain man in the Old West
  • Collection of [a series of] five stories about a post-apocalypse ex-government assassin turned bounty-hunter
  • Collection of 16 stories

If I get a little more restrictive and say I’m not interested in a “thriller” or the Old West or a post-apocalypse, I’m down to one book. If I want it to be a novel and/or in mass-market paperback, the counter hits zero. And so it goes…

WorldCondemnation

I’m not involved in fandom in any way except, y’know, being a fanatic about SF and reading and writing about it constantly. I’m sympathetic to some of the Sad Puppies’ desires for more “fun” in SF and a broader reach for it. I’m not sympathetic to some of their non-literary excesses, though (nor those of their opponents). Either way, it turns out the Sad Puppies were right about one thing, at least. Now that they’re not there to kick around any more, the Worldcon folks have turned on each other (as they used to do before the Puppies). Currently, a lot of people are complaining about the vast evil right-wing straight white male conspiracy which is keeping them from their entitlement of being on important panels and I was reminded of a video of a panel I’d seen while mourning Gardner Dozois. So I thought I’d point out how people like Dozois, George R. R. Martin, and Howard Waldrop were treated. I hope the video goes straight to 19:41 or so but, if not, you can fast forward there. The relevant segment ends at 24:55 or so. (Note that, at one place, Martin says “1985” and “1986” when he meant “1975” and “1976.”)

Grrr. Since it turns out the site owner has inexplicably disabled playback on other sites, you can either click the youtube button on the “unembed” above or this link.

Help Me, SFWA Prez, You’re My Only Hope

From one award to another.

As the last section relates to Gardner Dozois’ recent death, so this one was specifically triggered by Ellison’s (and there were a couple of Ellison anecdotes in the clip above). I got to wondering which of my favorite authors from earlier decades were still alive. I have several (overflowing) cases of SF books which contain an “era” per case. People who started in the 30s and 40s are in one case. They are all dead now. People who started in the 50s and 60s (with maybe three who started in the 40s but really started in the 50s) are in the next case. With Harlan Ellison’s death, they are now all dead except the Grand Masters Larry Niven and Robert Silverberg, the Author Emeritus Katherine MacLean, and… Ben Bova (b.1932), Carol Emshwiller (b.1921), and Norman Spinrad (b.1940). This leads me to again make a plea I’ve made several times before in various ways.

Please, SFWA prez’s, make Ben Bova and Norman Spinrad (two peas in a pod, there) Grand Masters next year and the next! Please, SF fans, pester the SFWA board to make this happen! (Carol Emshwiller may win a Nobel for Literature someday but doesn’t seem to have made quite the impact on the field that might be expected. If anyone wanted to give her a Grand Master, I’d be delighted. Surprised, but delighted.)

As a life-achievement award given to authors who must be living, seniority should be and usually is a major factor. The last time someone older than Emshwiller was given the award was Phil Farmer (b.1918) in 2001. For Bova, it was Wolfe (b.1931) in 2013. For Spinrad, it was just this year but Delany, Cherryh, Haldeman, and Willis are all younger and have already received it. Time’s a-wastin’!

Review: Nightmare #70

Nightmare #70, July 2018

NM70
Original Fiction:

  • “Ways to Wake” by Alison Littlewood (short story)
  • “Kylie Land” by Caspian Gray (fantasy short story)

This Nightmare‘s original fiction features two stories which have strong elements but start better than they finish and don’t seem to fully fit in a speculative dark/horror magazine.

Ways to Wake” presents us with an old man in a retirement home who is disturbed by the resident cat who knows “whenever anyone’s going.” The man starts feeling like the cat may be a killer or a witch’s familiar or any number of other things and contemplates harming it and fellow residents including a Nurse Ratched character. While initially interesting and effectively creepy and insane-feeling, it then wanders around and has one of those “non-endings.” There’s actually nothing necessarily speculative to it, either.

Kylie Land” describes the meeting between Kyle Eland, a strange outcast, and the new outcast to the school, Ramage, who is a semi-retired mind reader. Not daunted by the fact that Ramage warns him it will be painful and by the fact that Ramage has previously “erased” a guy, Kyle insists on being read in an effort to find out what’s wrong with him. Turns out there’s nothing really wrong with him… his father, on the other hand… The story ends too easily and, despite Kyle’s long-standing trauma, doesn’t really meet the definition of “horror” or even especially “dark fantasy” to me but I thought both protagonists were well-crafted oddballs and the quirky style was appealing. While not entirely satisfying, it was an enjoyable read.

Review: Nightmare #69

Nightmare #69, June 2018

NM69
Original Fiction:

  • “Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” by Nibedita Sen (dark fantasy short story)
  • “Red Rain” by Adam-Troy Castro (absurdist gore short story)

Did you ever read a story written entirely in second person questions? Did it really annoy you? Would you read it if you didn’t have to? Because “Red Rain” is such a story and involves apparently millions of people falling out of the sky to their deaths while “you” get drenched in gore as “you” try to duck and cover. This is conveyed by some inexplicable entity asking “you” a lot of questions which are essentially declarative sentences with an interrogative stuck up front and a question mark stuck on the end. This device and the unaesthetic lack of proportion combined to completely dissociate me from any effect this story might have had. I’m sorry, but I’d rather read John Shirley’s Three-Ring Psychus or something.

(Incidentally, one gets the sense these people are falling from great heights at great speeds but one person hits a power line and bounces off before landing and getting shredded when, even in a fantasy, he ought to have just gotten cut right in half—with guts spewing in both directions, presumably. And why stop with just one line? He could have gone through several like an egg in a slicer. Maybe there was some sense of limit or proportion to the story after all?)

On the other hand, for the second issue in a row, Nightmare has a really good story. “Leviathan Sings to Me in the Deep” tells the tale of a captain of a whaling vessel on a world that is and is not of our world and history. On this voyage, a scientist is busy trying to create a whale communicator of sorts, using parts of whales the ship’s crew have killed. Unsurprising but hauntingly effective descents into madness follow.

While there may be a a glitch or two in the narrative voice of the captain as recorded in his plain, direct, but beautifully written log, it is generally solid and his character is well-realized and effective with initially benign aspects growing to altered effect as the story progresses. The plain description of the whaling activities, however normal they may have been, produces a natural darkness before the unnatural darkness even properly begins. The ending contains its message but is relatively subdued rather than overt and, unlike most stories of this sort, is more concerned with empathy and equity than simple vengeance. There is a problem with the narrative device and the ending which does ask for some charitable work on the part of the reader to work around but, otherwise, this story was superbly done and captivating. I’m not one to say “I wish this was a novel” about a story since I think that tends to deprecate it as a story but this was definitely the sort of story that I could settle into and my only real complaint was that it did wrap up quickly.