Selected Stories: 2019-02-06

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

Noted Original Fiction:

  • The Crying Bride” by Carrie Laben, The Dark #45, February 2019 (recommended dark fantasy short story)
  • Quiet the Dead” by Micah Dean Hicks, Nightmare #77, February 2019 (recommended dark fantasy/horror short story)

Oddly, I’ve been more impressed by Nightmare than Lightspeed so far this year and Nightmare here racks up its second recommendation in as many issues. Even more oddly, I’ve been more impressed in general by February’s dark fantasy/horror than other fantasy or even science fiction and a story from The Dark is my only other recommendation so far this month.

Swine Hill, basically nothing more than a pork processing plant, is already well on its way to becoming a ghost town with people outnumbered by, and many possessed by, the “Dead.” Kay is possessed by rage and vengeance after her father has died and her mother’s left, leaving her to raise her two siblings. Oscar is born and dies each day and Mira is rendered unable to speak of some great mystery or trauma. After a co-worker disrespects Kay and she wreaks vengeance on him, she loses her job. The domino effect from this runs through the family and town, bringing matters to a head.

The characters are well-drawn, the dark fantasy/horror elements are powerful (especially the night in the bar and, even more especially, the morning after) and the dying town rings true. Up to that point, this is strongly recommended. After such an effective beginning with rising tension between the sisters, I personally felt the ending was too quick and incomplete and the last line was too easy. I feel like I see what it was going for and something it was trying to avoid and perhaps others will think the ending is perfect. For me, though, it results in only a mild recommendation.

The Crying Bride” is a monologue from an old woman who turns out to be the aunt of the listener. That niece is catching up on family history prior to her marriage to another woman and the tale she receives presumably shocks her. As the story opens, they’ve gotten to talking about ghosts and the aunt assures the listener that she doesn’t believe in ghosts because the family was never haunted by the one person who should have haunted them: the crying bride. What follows is a narrative of the lives and deaths on a family farm of a drunken uncle and his prematurely dead bride, a bitter mother, and a narrator who bonds with her special tree, flees to college to become “Janey Appleseed,” and returns to make even more of a difference than she already has.

While this tale’s details are often surprising, the larger pattern is fairly predictable, but in the satisfying way of the recurrent rhythm of good familiar music. It’s also yet another misandrous tale but its problematic narrator so ironically and lightly delivers its darkness that it makes for a compelling read.

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Selected Stories: 2019-01-23

Past Dinosaur Fantasy Future Prehistoric

This is the first review in a probably semi-regular series which notes stories from the “selectively reviewed magazines” (magazines which, as of 2019, I read but don’t review in full).

Noted Original Fiction:

  • All Show, No Go” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Galaxy’s Edge #36, January/February 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • I’ve Got the World on a String” by Edward M. Lerner, Galaxy’s Edge #36, January/February 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • Skinned” by Rich Larson, Terraform, January 10, 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • VTE” by S. R. Algernon, Nature, January 23, 2019 (science fiction short story)
  • What It Sounds Like When You Fall” by Natalia Theodoridou, Nightmare #76, January 2019 (recommended dark fantasy short story)

(The recommendation for “The Man Whose Left Arm Was a Cat” by Jennifer Lee Rossman, Diabolical Plots #47, January 2019, would appear here but I reviewed it for Tangent.)

Galaxy’s Edge #36 is above average. Three of the eight original tales are between four and six thousand words and all have their interesting points. “Show” sticks out for me. In it, a first-person narrator finds out that the family robot can do a lot more than would be expected, including creating atomically (though not sub-atomically) identical copies of things. This being in an SF magazine, the plot naturally involves duplicating rare pulps for fun and profit, thanks to the robot’s hedonistic programming. Meanwhile, the narrator has to deal with her(?) antagonistic father when things go well and a bunch of irate customers and the cops when things go wrong. Aside from the pulp references, this is not an overtly “retro” tale but reads like classic SF. However, I find the quantum elements of the story as problematic as they are clever and, even aside from the duo’s main difficulty, I’m not sure how they actually got away with things to the extent they did. Otherwise, this is an unusual, fun, modern robot story with some meaningful character relations.

The five tales which are about two thousand words or significantly less are generally much less interesting but “String” has fun word play and is an excellent analysis of the foibles of string theory, though the story takes it in an opposite and fantastic direction. As short as it is, it’s still a little long and maybe the protagonist could have done something more with his breakthrough, but the tale is entertaining and has some substance.

Turning to noteworthy stories from other magazines, “Skinned” shares some thematic preoccupations with the same author’s “Smear Job” in last month’s Analog and also unsurprisingly makes me think of Rjurik Davidson’s “Skins” (Cosmos, 2015) and other stories about people wearing other bodies. This particular flash piece focuses on the “wearing,” in which the body you choose can be a fashion statement and the main character thinks she’s made a daring choice by taking a man’s body off the sex offender registry and making modifications to it for her own purposes. Neither her hopes nor her fears prepare her for the actual results.

VTE” here stands for “Vicarious Trial and Error” and simultaneously discusses and is a sort of macroscopic double-slit experiment as a scientist dines with another man. I don’t think such extrapolations are plausible and, since there’s a “get out of jail free” card involved, it seems like the plot could have been more foolproof (though pravda has been as strange as this fiction), but it’s still a fun and thought-provoking tale.

In “Fall,” it’s Uncle Pete’s funeral, so he gets dressed for it and the family accompanies him to his grave. Angels have fallen and they’re a lot like birds and vermin but sometimes bring valuable trinkets with the junk they collect for people who are nice to them. Pete’s due to die because he’s lost his job helping his younger brother, the father of our young narrator. Dad is also unemployed except for shooting angels which gets him pennies a dozen. The narrator deals with family life, talks to the buried but not-yet-dead uncle, and interacts with the angels. This is a creative and powerful (though nihilistic) tale of multiple losses (or falls).

Review: Nightmare #75

Nightmare #75, December 2018

Nightmare_75_1812

Original Fiction:

  • “The Ten Things She Said While Dying: An Annotation” by Adam-Troy Castro (horror short story)
  • “The Island of Beasts” by Carrie Vaughn (fantasy short story)

Ten Things” is yet another “listory” from “Nightspeed.” In this, a scientist seeking to open a portal for interstellar travel has instead opened a portal in his chest for a Lovecraftian monster-god to burst through—a monster god which makes Alien chestbursters look like fluffy bunnies. His assistant is mortally wounded in her boss’ explosion and she faces a fate worse than a fate worse than death, conditional on the monster’s explication and evaluation of her ten dying utterances, one by one. While this actually has entertaining aspects, the main problem is that the monster is a little too complacently self-satisfied, forgetting that the reader will be judging it as it judges her, and the structure leads to a stilted, essentially static, pace and distanced events.

A female werewolf refuses to accept her supposed place in the world, so is exiled to “The Island of Beasts.” There, she seems to find herself in a situation just like the one she left, except with fewer choices and less room to roam, but still she persists. Werewolves or not, this isn’t even “dark fantasy,” much less horror, but is readable despite having little plot and less climax.

Review: Nightmare #74

Nightmare #74, November 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “Dead Lovers on Each Blade, Hung” by Usman Malik (horror novelette)

This is an unusual issue of Nightmare in that it has only a single original story (a fairly long novelette) instead of two (usually both short stories unless one is a very short novelette). In the snaky “Dead Lovers,” a Pakistani heroin addict makes his statement to a cop. He describes how he was saved from an overdose by a man who was looking for his lost wife, whom he’d bought when she was a child. With the two men’s lives now entwined, they head off to a sort of mystic religious music concert near a shrine where the husband thinks she may have gone in search of the “Cobra Stone” which fascinates her. When they arrive, the tone and nature of the story becomes much darker and graphically violent and those are only the first steps in the escalation.

The characters are interesting (and become more so in different ways) and the narrative voice, itself, works but the awkward strategy of making this be a person’s long-winded statement to a cop doesn’t help, shown most vividly when the story breaks from first-person narrative to introduce into evidence a key letter written by the missing woman. (On the other hand, one superb element of this story is that you are definitely in Pakistan and there are many unusual or outright unfamiliar words and concepts but it’s lightly done and never obstructive or isolating but invites you in with a strong sense of place and culture.)

The story does a fairly good job of somehow maintaining some interest but over 8000 of the 12000 words are prologue and mainstream prologue at that. When we finally arrive at the climactic section, the narrator’s frozen horror is initially unconvincing. Sure, we’re in an underground cavern a snake has just come out of and some creepy guy is singing weird stuff to the weird friend but either there’s not enough there or it’s not written so that it seems like enough. Then it goes from not enough to too much, jumping straight to a gross-out with a graphic description of viscerally repulsive stuff. The next phase (no spoilers) is actually well done but calls into question whether this is even fantasy at all.

Finally, this seems rich with thematic material and symbolic imagery and could tie together moths and flames, fireflies and snakes, humans and transcendence, along with the obvious intrinsic connections of heroin needles to viper fangs but instead is overly explicit about arbitrary “white queen” stuff instead. It was ultimately interesting but extremely mixed for me, though readers’ reactions will probably run the gamut.

Review: Nightmare #73

Nightmare #73, October 2018

Original Fiction:

  • “The Inheritance” by Joanna Parypinski (horror short story)
  • “A Mother’s Love Never Ends” by Halli Villegas (dark fantasy short story)

This issue of Nightmare introduces us to Madeline and Miriam and, while only Miriam observes that a town looks “frozen sometime in the 1950s.” both stories have a little of that in them.

When a disturbing stranger appears on her doorstep talking about an impossible “Inheritance,” unhappy Madeline must decide whether to let him in. The tension of the meeting is done well enough and the nature of the “inheritance” is clever enough, but the woman is characterized too much to be Everyone yet too little and too negatively for much sympathy and the story is slight. In “Mother’s Love,” Miriam is riding the bus with her mother’s ashes and, while on the bus and at the various stops, experiences a surreal swirl of past and present and Never as intimations about her broken home and the games parents play arise and we learn about their effects. While overly disorienting on one hand, it was effectively creepy on the other, with an ending which may resonate for some.

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.)

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.