- “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.
- “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.
- “Ally” by Nalo Hopkinson (fantasy short story)
- “Bride Before You” by Stephanie Malia Morris (horror short story)
In “Ally,” Sally used to be friends with Pete when she was Jack but that change put a strain on their relationship. Nonetheless, she’s at the funeral of Pete’s husband, Iqbal, and Pete wants to go for a drink afterward. He then tells her the true story of his upbringing as a foster-child by an initially evil woman and the initially abusive relationship he and Iqbal had. Then a breakthrough both occurred and occurs.
You might think this is Pete’s story but it’s not: it’s all about Sally, with Pete’s trauma being a vehicle for Sally’s all-important validation. That’s really all that needs to be said but, for a couple of minor points, I don’t know why it was necessary to dump a dozen names on us in an early paragraph when this story has only two characters (or one) and I also don’t see how the fantasy element of this is dark, much less horrific (except in the very background regarding the evil foster-mother and only from her point of view).
“Bride Before You,” on the other hand, is very much horror and much more effectively about its narrator. Before the story opens, an upper-class black woman had gone to the conjure woman to find out how to become magically pregnant as part of a plan to get herself out of the “South” of Washington and back to New York but had gotten carried away and produced two children: a beautiful boy and his elder sister… a black spider. Her plan misfired in terms of moving, as well. The narrator spider, who can only creep about in the dark as an outcast, believes in the class-tradition of the eldest marrying first, so takes a dim view of the brother’s fiancees.
This can probably be read in a lot of ways and it’s obviously some extreme sibling rivalry but I can’t help but also think of a rich and poor divide that says, “Don’t ignore me or leave me behind or think you’re better.” The narrator’s speech rings almost perfectly right in the abstract but it could be seen as a problem that a spider that grew up in such a high-falutin’ house would have it unless it has symbolic/thematic purposes. A more serious problem is that the ending seems a little shaky, not in content but in narrative approach, after having such a focused point of view and strong voice. Speaking of that personality, it may just be me because I have a sometimes strange sense of humor but, while this was a very dark and horrific story, a couple of moments seemed almost funny in a demented way. Despite some questions or quibbles, this was a stimulating and fascinating story.
“The Garbage Doll” by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, February 2017 Nightmare, horror short story
Okay, this is kind of weird. Horror is not my forte (if I know one thing about horror I probably know three things about fantasy and thirty about SF, though I’ve taken some preliminary steps to try to fix that) and I’m not even sure if I’m recommending this. All I know is that it made me think of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. with all the stylish sexiness utterly removed. Still, this story – about a woman who seems to be dying in an ambulance and, not only having her life flash before her eyes, but going back to live in it in a weird no-funhouse way – was very intriguing. I’m not even sure if it’s not “dark fantasy” rather than horror but it seems horrific enough to me.
So consider this an “if you’re also intrigued, then it’s a rec; if not, not” sort of thing. Certainly an extra-honorable mention, though.