If this had come out a decade earlier it would have been hailed as an exemplar of the New Weird, but I think now maybe epic/mainstream fantasy has jusIf this had come out a decade earlier it would have been hailed as an exemplar of the New Weird, but I think now maybe epic/mainstream fantasy has just cannibalized certain tendencies from that movement/moment/whatever (urban rather than rural settings, focus on a single space rather than a lengthy journey, modernization, etc) and moved on. So what we have is a book with a rather New Weird-ish setting, but a world-saving narrative straight out of epic fantasy (and incorporating a number of other tropes, most particularly the "royal bloodline surprise" which pops up not once, not twice, but three separate times).
On a macro level: Said urban setting is Bulikov, once the capital of the world-conquering Continentals,* who some time ago** were defeated and overthrown by their colony Saypur***. This is noteworthy because the Continentals had the Divinities on their side, gods who are the source of miracles (ie magic, used by humans with some nice Vancian spell names) in this world, and who were mysteriously killed by the leader of Saypur's rebellion. The Continentals are fantasy Russians, and the Saypuris are fantasy Indians, and we're in a kind of fantasy Weimar Germany, with the former aggressor reduced to a wartorn waste overseen by its former victims. The overthrow of the Divinities caused a "Blink" when their magic, used to rewrite much of the reality of the Continent, vanished, leaving an almost-post-apocalyptic surreal landscape, including the presence of disconnected stairs throughout the city. Bulikov and Saypur are in the midst of modernization, and cars, cameras, and telephones are all recent innovations, and the tension between dogmatism and progress is the chief source of human conflict here.
On a micro level: A Saypuri historian working in Bulikov has been murdered. His presence highlighted the fact that Saypuris are not so much held to the law of censorship and silence regarding discussion of the Divinities on the Continent, and his death threatens to destabilize an already-tense political landscape. Our protagonist (and a compelling protagonist she is) Ashara Komayd, an intelligence officer, is sent to investigate. Things go awry, mostly in pretty obvious ways, but there are some cool monsters, and interesting characters, and a great reliance on history as an academic practice,**** and surely not everything has to be shocking or metafictionally playful or experimental or anything, right? This is a fun, solid book.
Religion occupies a weird place in most modern fantasy, where gods are essentially normal people with more power, and there's a touch of that here, but Bennett at least tries to pull apart that tendency a bit, examining questions of agency and epistemology in that sort of setting.
Also the book is written entirely in present tense, which is very off-putting at first but, once you adjust, very effective at giving the narrative a constant sense of propulsion.
* The world appears to consist of exactly three countries/ethnic groups - one of the weirdest shortcomings of the novel. ** The historical timeline seems a little wobbly/inconsistent - sometimes these events seem to have taken place hundreds of years ago, but I think the explicit story is that it was some two generations ago. *** Colony as in England-India, not colony as in England-USA, which misunderstanding caused me a lot of confusion at first. **** Which allows Bennett to integrate infodumps pretty smoothly. ...more
Moving from the first volume, curated by Laird Barron, to this one, overseen by Kathe Koja, I find that, for the most part, the tendencies I set forthMoving from the first volume, curated by Laird Barron, to this one, overseen by Kathe Koja, I find that, for the most part, the tendencies I set forth for the fuzzy set of “weird fiction” mostly hold true. This is good because I definitely don’t have it in me to try anything like that again. Part of this, I have to admit, is me being a contrarian sick of the explosion of listicles and think pieces and articles on weird fiction these days, which possibly hit rock bottom with “>this article, which somehow recapitulates the standard tactic of pointing to weird fiction as “the genre that transcends genre” without ever using the word “weird,” in favor of the bland-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness “the new fantastic… evinced by the ways in which something deviates from a normativity.”
Where Barron’s selections last year tended to align with my suspicion that weird fiction is just a specific subset of horror, Koja’s choices tend more toward (dark) fantasy with a whimsical sensibility (more Link than Ligotti, let’s say). This difference in approach is apparent even from their introductions: Barron references Blackwood’s “The Willows,” while Koja’s touchstone is the quirky town Riddle from the sort-of-Bob-Dylan-biopic I’m Not Here. Koja’s selections, too, are less likely to riff on classics of the genre, concerning themselves instead with folktales (more kappa than Cthulhu… I’ll stop). The main difference from my schema from the first volume (look, I’m doing exactly what I said I wasn’t going to do) is the lack of what we might call a pessimistic epistemological shift - these stories tend to be more concerned with relationships and the personal/insular and conversing with monsters. They’re all still tonally dark, though, focus on some sort of liminal intrusion, and tend toward a knowledge/ignorance binary rather than a good/evil binary.
This last was the most striking theme of the collection to me, linking it closely with VanderMeer’s Southern Reach/Area X books (I assume most of these stories were written/being written before that trilogy was published, making this a similarity in zeitgeist rather than aping the commercial success of those books, although it will be interesting to see how this plays out in next year’s stories). A “meme,” before the word became a meaningless bit of internet ephemera, was an idea or custom that spread from person to person in a viral manner (a concept introduced by Richard Dawkins), and both VanderMeer and some of the stories here (especially Ballingrud and Carroll) are concerned with exploring the possible horrific implications of this idea. I have to assume said zeitgeist has to do with the post-modern information economy, perhaps especially as that relationship parallels that of Lovecraft et al’s with the emerging industrial economy - maybe we could even ruminate on the spread of the “weird renaissance” as a real-life application of memes and dangerous knowledge, eh?
It bears pointing out that most of these stories are by women - good for Koja and Kelly for putting together a genre anthology that just happened to work out that way without it being explicitly designed as such. This crop of authors is also an impressive assortment of up-and-comers, many of whom I had never even heard of before, and with only one recurring from Barron’s volume. It seems that the system of rotating guest editors will keep this series from becoming stale or predictable (as will the impossibility of strictly defining “weird fiction” for that matter). This, like Volume One, is an excellent collection of stories, whether or not you buy the idea that weird fiction is a genre or field in-and-of itself.
A small quibble: there’s a certain modern aesthetic sensibility (particularly prevalent with online publications?) and which I tend, possibly unfairly, to associate with workshopped fiction - an over-reliance on metaphor, a love of single-sentence opening/closing paragraphs, the omission of certain articles and connectors - that a lot of these stories are guilty of, but clearly I am in the minority in finding it irksome at times.
“The Atlas of Hell” by Nathan Ballingrud Noirish horror set in New Orleans with a (seemingly) standard weird fiction protagonist “seduced by old books” - how could I not love this one? The underworld (of crime) intersects with the underworld (of Hell) when a mobster wants to steal the titular artifact from a small-time crook operating out of the swamps. Things get gory, and the unknowable cosmic horror of Hell is excellently conveyed. Shares with the Southern Reach trilogy not only the marshy, Southern American setting, but also a concern with language/knowledge as a vector of awful change (“Maybe language is over” / “It’s the language that hurts”). Feints in the direction of Etchison’s “The Late Shift” at one point, which I appreciated. I’ve had a copy of North American Lake Monsters on my shelf for ages, and this story makes me feel shameful about not having read it yet.
“Wendigo Nights” by Siobhan Carroll The Wendigo, a personification of cannibalism and the frigid north which originally haunted tribes of the Algonquian, has a long pedigree in weird fiction. In Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” it was an unseen monster that kidnapped and impersonated its victims, while Alvin Schwartz’s retelling left the creature itself offstage and replaced the impersonation with a pile of ash. Norman Partridge’s “The Hollow Man” centered on the monster as some sort of reptilian beast that physically possessed its victim, and now Carroll has moved past a separate monster at all into the meme of “wendigo psychosis” (a real thing) introduced by means of a mysterious cylinder dug up by an Arctic research team. For all of them, the wendigo is a stand-in for “the dread of nature,” and it’s noteworthy that nature is also mostly kept off-stage here, with the ambiguously-gendered protagonist’s diary entries (titled by number of days since the station lost contact with the outside world, and presented achronologically) all taking place within the walls of the station itself. Carroll also folds in inspiration from Who Goes There (1938, which became The Thing (1951), and then The Thing (1982), and then The Thing (2011)). A variety of possible explanations are proffered for the cylinder, but it doesn’t really matter where it came from, does it?
“Headache” by Julio Cortázar I’m conflicted about the idea of using the year of translation as a basis for inclusion/placement in anthologies as opposed to year of initial publication, but c’est la vie - I’m also surprised there was fiction of Cortazar’s yet to be translated into English. This is a story of mancuspias, some sort of bird-mammal creature, and their caretakers, and I finished it absolutely certain that “mancuspias” were an entry in Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, but apparently they were not. Now I’m not sure where I would have heard of “mancuspias” prior to this and find myself in my own real-life meta-weird story.
Written in first-person plural from the point of view of the caretakers, whose increasing headaches and sense of vertigo mirror the health of their flock (herd?) and their increasingly precarious standing as commercial farmers (it doesn’t get much more topical than precarity, I have to admit). The vertigo, indeed, is literalized in the bizarre spinning about of the mancuspias. Throughout, a kind of agitated unease continually bubbles beneath the surface.
“Loving Armageddon” by Amanda C. Davis A very short story about a woman who loves a man with a “hand-grenade heart” and the danger she faces when he could blow up at any time. Again, a variety of possible explanations are offered and discarded, which is a common tactic in modern weird stories, but here the very multiplicity of the stories is what comforts the narrator. Carroll’s “All it needed was our stories” gives way to “Whichever story she needs right now, so she can love him.”
“The Earth and Everything Under” by K.M. Ferebee Birds begin to erupt from the ground, carrying within them letters written to our protagonist, a hedge witch, by her husband, who was executed for being a hedge witch. He, in some sort of underworld/afterlife, becomes increasingly feral/wolf-like, while she makes her peace with his passing and grows closer to the local sheriff (this growing closer being conveyed in an excellently understated way by Ferebee), eventually removing the spells on her house which had been placed “to keep out what needed keeping out, and keep in what needed keeping in.” Mentions Woodbine, which is a real town in Georgia, but possibly also a Davis Grubb reference. This could easily have been unbearably twee, but it worked for me.
“Nanny Anne and the Christmas Story” by Karen Joy Fowler A common trick for weird fiction/horror is to end a story with an unresolved conflicting interpretation between the supernatural and mental illness - let’s call this the Oliver Onions trick: we know Elsie is dead, but why? Less common (probably because it’s much more difficult to pull off) is the de la Mare/Aickman tactic where the lack of resolution is compounded by the reader’s confusion about what it is that did or did not perhaps happen. This is an example of the latter, and an excellent one at that. A pair of binary opposite twins are left by their academic parents with a babysitter, who may or may not be taking the place of their mother, and at the twins’ insistence tells them the story of a changeling (complete with magic cradle and a debt with unforeseen consequences) which may or may not have something to do with the two of them.
“The Girls Who Go Below” by Cat Hellisen As a counterpoint to “Nanny Anne,” an example of the first type, but it’s subtle about it. Another sister binary, this time with a few years between them (I took the younger for ~12 at first and was not really convinced when she was revealed to be 16), vacation with their aunt in South Africa. Things are safe, and therefore boring, until a neighboring boy (from a family rumored to have fairy blood) comes between the two, at which point things get messy. I liked this one on a structural/narrative level (because I enjoy narrators who don’t beat you over the head with their possible unreliability) and appreciated the musical themes, but the prose crossed the line for me a few too many times (ie “We kiss until I learn what a heart tastes like.”).
“Nine” by Kima Jones At the Star Motel (because “the North Star Motel” would be too obvious to white folks) in Phoenix, three women cater to African Americans partaking in the Great Migration. One of them, Tanner, another protagonist with an ambiguous gender presentation, has been confined there by the juju of an old lover, and the others have fallen into the same trap. The witch sends her sons one-by-one to try to bring Tanner back, and the story is concerned with the death of the ninth and final of them. The idea of human calculus and trade haunts this story, but Jones also touches on gender and sexuality and motherhood, and that most integral of horror themes, the weight of the past on the present.
“Bus Fare” by Caitlín R. Kiernan An entry in Kiernan’s long-running series starring Dancy Flammarion, albino monster hunter, who here encounters a werewolf at a bus stop in the South and engages her in a battle of riddles. Old-fashioned and pretty straightforward - a good story, but I prefer Kiernan in her more devious/shifty mode.
“The Air We Breathe Is Stormy, Stormy” by Rich Larson A roughneck seeking to escape his pregnant girlfriend and abusive father finds refuge in the lonely world of an offshore oil rig (thematically, we’re concerned here with why people choose to live in darkness and murk). One night he finds a mysterious woman in the water, and we start to do that suggest-and-discard-possible-explanations thing (mermaid? no. selkie? no. wait, yes.) but that ends pretty quickly and the story takes a hard left turn into a surprisingly sentimental conclusion.
“The Husband Stitch” by Carmen Maria Machado A mature (in every sense of the word) and deeply feminist retelling of the folktale of the woman with a ribbon/scarf tied around her neck, which stems from Washington Irving’s “The Adventure of the German Student.” (I had assumed for no real reason that the folktale preceded the Irving, Machado told me otherwise, and I defer to her). Here, it is just a sad fact of life that women have ribbons tied about their person, and men needle them about it. The narrative covers most of our protagonist’s life, and is interspersed with blackly humorous asides (both instructions for reading the story aloud and other Alvin Schwarz-by-way-of-Angela-Carter folktales about women). The antagonist (if that’s even the right word to use) isn’t so much malicious as he is banally inconsiderate, and watching their son follow in his footsteps is fantastically depressing. Like “Loving Armageddon,” a story about the dangers and difficulties of women in a patriarchal society as they deal with the men who love them even as they push and pull them apart.
“Observations About Eggs From the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa” by Carmen Maria Machado As promised, one-sided dialogue from a man on a plane whose liminal/apocalyptic unveiling of the world takes place through a variety of human interactions with (mostly chicken but occasionally dragon) eggs. Particularly Link-esque and full of excellent lines and thoughts, but lacking the emotional punch of “The Husband Stitch.”
“Resurrection Points” by Usman T. Malik Religious strife in Karachi erupts around a young man who is coming into his own as a kind of Gramscian organic intellectual who uses a “biocurrent” to heal the afflictions of poor locals. The city, like the diabetic limbs of his patients, is rotting and festering, and parallels are drawn between him and the Prophet Isa (Jesus). “Someone once told me dust has no religion.”
“Exit Through the Gift Shop” by Nick Mamatas The tourism economy takes hold in Lovecraft country (Rehoboth, Massachusetts), centered on the local myth of a phantom hitchhiker. Told in second person from the POV of the cosmic horror itself, a risky tactic that pays off handsomely here. Perhaps, in some ways, a rural New England take on Fritz Leiber’s megapolisomancy?
“So Sharp That Blood Must Flow” by Sunny Moraine A nightmarish reenvisioning of the end of The Little Mermaid (“This was not her ending. And she sees no reason why she should take it gracefully.”) - I’m sure I would have appreciated it even more if I was more familiar with the source material, but this was dark and morbid and lyrical in a way that spoke to me nonetheless.
“The Ghoul” by Jean Muno Also nightmarish and oceanic, but in an entirely different way. Our narrator, introduced as “just a witness” and then essentially forgotten about for the rest of the story, follows a man on a beach (that most liminal of environments, locus of the “rapture of borders”) who follows a cry for help from a woman in a wheelchair who is also the titular monster- this echoes a similar encounter he had with the woman decades ago. This time, she leads him to the avian Fates, who tear him to pieces. Perhaps a vision of a pseudo-Sisyphean kind of Hell, although that might be too reductionist a reading.
“A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide” by Sarah Pinsker A farmer in Saskatchewan gets set up with a cybernetic arm after losing his in a combine accident. While his parents (also farmers) are progressive technologists, he is more of an atavist. He begins feeling sure that his arm wants to be/knows it is a road in Colorado until he has to get a new brain chip because of an infection. Weird/novum as the yearning for belonging/being elsewhere.
“Migration” by Karin Tidbeck “>William F. Temple’s “Forget-Me-Not” (1950) is a neglected classic of weird-ish science fiction, a cold open into a confusing and alienating Gnostic universe (in the form of an underground complex), all of the broad strokes of which are echoed here. Where Temple trips himself up by conforming to mid-century generic expectations in the form of the reveal/explanation (even as it was an understated one for the time) and especially the need for an Empowered Individual protagonist, Tidbeck sustains a surreal, beautifully mysterious atmosphere full of unsettling and uncanny details. I sometimes try to resist my natural tendency to catalogue similarities to other works in these reviews, but this kind of uncertain-spatial-weirdness resonates with some of my favorites: Michel Bernanos’s “The Other Side of the Mountain”, Gene Wolfe’s “Forlesen,” and Steve Rasnic Tem’s similarly circular “At the Bureau.”
“Hidden in the Alphabet” by Charles Wilkinson In Algeria, perhaps, a man known only the Auteur lives years after his prime as an arthouse director disintegrated into pornography - this began, we learn through bits and dribbles of inferences and vagaries, with a pseudo-incestuous film about his son and niece (whose POV alternates with the Auteur’s) made when they were adolescents, and which prompted them into an actual incestuous relationship, perhaps, for which they are now seeking revenge, perhaps (there’s also an aside about the Auteur slamming his son’s hand in a door, and also that the son has faked his own death). Vengeful dissolution here echoes “The Ghoul,” but I never thought this one cohered enough to justify what plot there was.
“A Cup of Salt Tears” by Isabel Yap A Japanese woman with a dying husband encounters, in a bathhouse, a kappa who once saved her when she was a child and has now returned for her love. Men as monsters again (“And don’t let them touch you, darling. I am telling you this for you are often silly, and they are cruel; do not let them touch you.”) and, again, folklore, this time riffing on aging and beauty. ...more
A collection of feminist supernatural fiction published between 1850 and 1988. It’s a challenge not to be ahistorical in thinking about these, in termA collection of feminist supernatural fiction published between 1850 and 1988. It’s a challenge not to be ahistorical in thinking about these, in terms of both feminism and where these stories fit in terms of genre. “Supernatural fiction” seems often to be used as a more commercially viable pseudonym for horror with a bit of cultural capital cachet, but here it really does just mean non-mimetic fiction. I had a discussion with Laird Barron recently about whether ghost stories are “by definition” weird fiction or not (I say not). It’s useful here to channel John Clute’s thought that “supernatural fictions with a horror “feel” are better called Weird Fiction,” and argue that these are largely perfect examples of supernatural fictions that do not have “a horror ‘feel.’” Indeed, With these stories, the intrusion of the supernatural doesn’t even signify wrongness all the time - sometimes the ghost (and it’s almost always a ghost) is just a person who happens to be dead, and/or is offstage entirely. Rosemary Jackson intro - “Women writers of the supernatural have overturned many of these assumptions and definitions--not, as with some of their male counterparts, to investigate ‘horror’ for its own sake, but in order to extend our sense of the human, the real, beyond the blinkered limits of male science, language, and rationalism.” Which is all very essentialist, but accurate that these stories are (mostly) not horror-for-the-sake-of-horror.
Instead of horror, we have alienation, discontent, the stifling domestic environment, and women bucking the status quo - feminism, but a very white, very American-middle-and-upper class feminism (for the most part); universal sisterhood rather than intersectionality. It would be ahistorical, though, to deny the importance of these women writing stories featuring female POV characters who possess, or at least seek to possess, agency over their own lives. Many of these were more interesting to me as historical portraits of women’s lives than as supernatural stories in and of themselves - the best, of course, were the ones that fully combined those two strands.
Also worth mentioning: the stories collected here are (again, for the most part) decidedly not “misandrist,” the ridiculous/ironic watchword of the day. Very few focus on women gaining the upper hand over male abusers - they’re more likely, in fact, to not feature male characters at all.
The Long Chamber • (1914) • Olivia Howard Dunbar A couple are restoring an old house when an old friend of the wife’s comes to visit - her loveless marriage echoes that of the original builders of the house. The fact that she is subsumed entirely into helping her husband’s career (“complete self-immolation”) drives the wife of the host couple to a more modern/feminist viewpoint, while her husband takes a more traditional view ((why not, if she loves him?). When the guest sees the ghost of young lover killed by house founder’s husband, she learns what true love is.
A Ghost Story • (1858) • Ada Trevanion Homoeroticism is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an undercurrent throughout many of these tales, and here we have a student encountering the ghost of a beloved teacher (before she was aware the teacher was dead) and receiving an important bit of information that allows her to help the teacher’s family. The benevolent ghost is another ongoing theme.
Luella Miller • (1902) • Mary E. Wilkins Freeman An odd one, because I think this could easily be read as a misogynist story - a beautiful woman’s “self-destructive passivity” drains away the life of her caretakers (who had been “led away by a pretty face”); vampirism-by-another-name (“There are vampires, and there are vampires,” as Fritz Leiber wrote years later). Of course, it could also be read as an indictment of what the denial of agency can do to people. New England regionalism and dialectic, predating Lovecraft by more than a decade.
Conflicting readings aside, a classic of the American weird story, also present in Straub’s American Fantastic Tales.
What Did Miss Darrington See? • (1870) • Emma B. Cobb A conversational narrative about a Massachusetts woman of great intelligence and good breeding who, while working as a governess in Kentucky, falls in love with a Cuban visitor (an American updating of the traditional Gothic Mediterranean/Catholic Other/inferior) - or rather, he falls madly in love with her, and while she is tempted to do the same, she instead chooses rationalism and social success. They part ways after a short sojourn, and never meet again until his ghost visits her after he is killed in the Glorious Revolution in Spain, after which she is distraught not to have valued his love more. “She believed that. If you doubt it--if you think it can not be--will you tell me what it was that Miss Darrington saw?”
La Femme Noir • (1850) • Mrs. S. C. Hall [as by Anna Maria Hall] A young woman being raised by her uncle in an Alsatian castle falls in love and finds herself in a kind of Romeo-and-Juliet situation. She stands up to her uncle, a “dark, stern, violent man,” but he still attempts to ride down and kill the suitor before being stopped by the titular ghost. Remarkably, this gives him a newfound sense of piety, and after much time spent studying “THE BOOK,” he gives the lovers his blessing to marry and lives out the rest of his days a kind, peaceful man. Boilerplate Gothic, but fine enough for what it is. One of the few selections here with a man as a clearcut antagonist.
A Friend in Need • (1981) • Lisa Tuttle Two women happen to meet in an airport, and slowly realize that each was the imaginary(?) friend of the other’s childhood. Universal sisterhood as support mechanism for child abuse. I liked this one.
Attachment • (1974) • Phyllis Eisenstein Also tackles the idea of universal sisterhood while using telepathy as a means of examining generational and urban/rural differences (ie religion, pre-marital sex). Our protagonist is a 20-year-old American who has been in mental contact for as long as she can remember with a 50-year-old German, whose imminent death from cancer will leave the American on her own for the first time in her life. Clunky dialogue.
Dreaming the Sky Down • (1987) • Barbara Burford I think this is the only story here by a woman of color, a Jamaican-born Londoner, and also the only story to include the intersections of race and class with sex. An overweight teen, antagonized by a racist bully of a gym teacher, finds herself with the ability to fly (freedom, autonomy, etc). My favorite new-to-me story here, I need to read a copy of Burford’s only collection in the near future.
The Sixth Canvasser • (1916) • Inez Haynes Gillmore [as by Inez Haynes Irwin ] Like “Attachment,” concerned with approaching death - emphasized repeatedly with interjections of “The moment of death!” - an old woman sits and waits for death while watching a group of canvassers work her neighborhood to promote suffrage. She also meditates on technological (cars, electric lights) and social change, both in her own family and through the larger issue of suffrage (and remembers hearing Susan B. Anthony speak when she was a young girl). Throughout, she mourns the loss of a son who had vanished years before, and when he appears to gather her up, her terror turns to gentle acceptance. Jackson’s introduction suggests that this ending is “disturbingly open to interpretation,” but it doesn’t read that way to me at all.
An Unborn Visitant • (1932) • Vita Sackville-West The night after she receives an unexpected marriage proposal, a “hopelessly ordinary” Edwardian lady receives a visit from the ghost of her unborn flapper daughter, and although they butt heads, the love between mother and daughter wins out, and she resolves to get married as soon as possible. Mostly played for laughs regarding generational differences and the things yet to come in the future (“Freud, you know--but no, of course you don’t know”).
Tamar • (1932) • Lady Eleanor Smith Tamar, a “gipsy” anti-heroine, is alone one night and up to no good when a handsome stranger arrives and recounts her various misdeeds to her - it’s the Devil, in beautiful-fallen-angel mode, who has decided to marry her due to her evil escapades. She isn’t interested in playing second fiddle to him in Hell, so she poisons him and escapes. This one was fun - you have to wonder if Anton LaVey ever read it (vis a vis solipsistic individualism and Satan). Tamar belongs in the same genealogy as Jamaica Kincaid’s Xuela Claudette Richardson.
There and Here • (1897) • Alice Brown Essentially the same plot as “Miss Darrington,” but this time with barely-concealed homoeroticism. Two lifelong friends are separated after Rosamund has to go live with her brother, leaving Ruth with “loneliness and heart-hunger.” Eight years later, Rosamund pays Ruth a visit, and the two spend the night in Rosamund’s childhood home, which is mysteriously no longer decrepit and ruined but clean and cheerful. The next day, Ruth’s mother tells her that Rosamund has died, and Ruth returns to the house only to find it as desolate and abandoned as it should have been.
The Substitute • (1914) • Georgia Wood Pangborn A woman who refused to settle regrets never marrying or having children, when the ghost of an old friend who had had a happy marriage and children (but nothing else - “Envy me, but pity me, too!”) visits her and bequeaths her her two children. The appearance of the ghost is effectively creepy. Strikingly ambiguous statement about motherhood - the protagonist’s regret would seem to have little weight when balanced against the fact that the mother literally worked herself to death, but the end of the story seems to find both women at peace. There’s an odd moment of gender dysmorphia between the two children I haven’t quite puzzled out yet.
The Teacher • (1976) • Luisa Valenzuela A man pays a visit to an old teacher whom he hopes to impress, is intercepted by her mob of bizarre children, and realizes that she is not how he remembered (she, meanwhile, barely remembers him at all). A reflection on man’s unreasonable and inhumane demands on/perceptions of women. Hallucinatory and odd.
The Ghost • (1978) • Anne Sexton Well. While reading, this was one of my favorites - told from the point of view of the ghost, for a change, an old maid who haunts her great niece after her ignoble death in a nursing home. The two women share a name, never revealed, and the ghost is driven by an awful combination of self-loathing, jealousy, and antimodernism to torment the younger woman. Reading about Sexton’s life, though, retroactively ruined this for me
Three Dreams in a Desert • (1890) • Olive Schreiner A prose poem written in epic, Biblical language. I didn’t get enough out of this to have anything to say here.
The Fall • (1967) • Armonia Somers (trans. of El derrumbamiento 1953) Salmonson’s intros are usually pretty good but making no mention of race at all for this one is rather disappointing. Jackson, meanwhile, says that it “identifies women with blacks as social outsiders,” and if that was all it did it wouldn’t be great, but this is a story predicated on the reader’s disgust with the Virgin Mary (aka “the white Rose”) having sex with “the most naked and filthy of men” (ie a black man, who is usually referred to here by racial epithets). The black man is hiding in a safehouse after killing a white man, and after the house’s idol of Mary comes to life and demands this carnal debasement, she (“the Woman,” no longer “the Virgin”) leaves while the house (society) collapses, killing everyone inside.
Pandora Pandaemonia • (1989) • Jules Faye Another very short prose poem, this one is a surreal reclamation of mythic images (death, goddesses, sea monsters, temples).
The Doll • (1896) • Vernon Lee While visiting a local palace to buy antiques, our narrator becomes fixated on a most unusual family heirloom: a lifelike doll, commissioned generations ago by the family patriarch to honor his dead wife. More homoeroticism at play here; the narrator eventually buys and burns the doll in order to release the Doll (as she thinks of the actual woman) from “her sorrows.” The only supernatural element is the narrator’s sudden awareness of the Doll’s life story - and yet this was still one of my favorite stories here.
The Debutante • (1939) • Leonora Carrington In which said debutante convinces a hyena acquaintance to go to a ball in her place. Short, sweet, and surreal, gives the lie to universal sisterhood when the debutante and hyena murder a maid in order to wear her face as a disguise.
The Readjustment • (1908) • Mary Hunter Austin A woman who had always bucked the status quo dies and continues to haunt her home in order to try to bridge the unbridgeable disconnect between repression/husband and emotion/wife. A neighbor woman understands the dilemma, and convinces the ghost to leave after the husband tells “the Presence” all the things he should have said while she was alive. Sentimental, but not too much so. I loved the following exchange:
“Did you see her?” “No.” “How do you know, then?” “Don’t you know?” The neighbor felt there was nothing to say to that.
Clay-Shuttered Doors • (1926) • Helen R. Hull Narrated by an unmarried woman journalist whose friend married a tyrant of a successful businessman. Reminiscent of Poe’s "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar" (1845), the wife is killed when the husband crashes their car one evening, but returns to life for a while (“It is hard to get back in”) to support him during one last business deal - this much is obvious to modern readers, but clues are dribbled out quite effectively, leading up to a penultimate scene where she makes herself up for one last dinner party, “as if she drew another face for herself.” This is the sort of story I expected from this book.
Since I Died • (1873) • Elizabeth Stuart Phelps The incredibly florid story of a thinly-veiled Boston marriage, narrated post-death by the ghost of one addressing her surviving partner. Unconvincingly interpretable as sisters rather than partners. Concerned, again, with the moment of death, and the running down of time.
The Little Dirty Girl • (1982) • Joanna Russ If I had the money/time/energy/understanding of permissions and rights, I’d start a press just to publish Russ’s collected weird fiction (or collected short fiction, even). This, a letter to an unknown recipient, is about a Seattle-based author with chronic health problems who encounters the titular ghost. One of the all-time great American ghost stories. One of these days I’ll read it back-to-back with Truman Capote’s “Miriam” (1945). This story deserves a full review of its own, which I’ll get around to writing some day (ha ha)....more
Urban fantasy (but not that kind of urban fantasy) in a faux-ancien regime Paris that is in a kind of post-EnlPutting this down after about 150 pages.
Urban fantasy (but not that kind of urban fantasy) in a faux-ancien regime Paris that is in a kind of post-Enlightenment stage of rationality (replete with salons). Outsiders from the Mediterranean analogue (?) can still see ghosts, though, and it seems that the facade of rationality is lifting from this city as well. I was frustrated by the fact that this tension was not reflected at all in the narrative voice of the book - the characters might doubt their sanity after seeing a ghost, kind of, but the reader is always clear about what’s happening, mostly because one of our viewpoint characters has a haunting that is mentioned in every paragraph or so as wordlessly reacting to whatever is going on (“The lieutenant's ghost leaned on the chair back, sardonic,” etc).
Very, very little happened in the part of the book that I read - I think the appeal here would be for readers interested in being charmed by these characters, and that’s not something near the top of my interests, so I’m moving on. For a book so focused on the comedy of manners (I am not going to use the you-know-what word), the dialogue comes off as a little stilted or contrived, too. I also found it impossible to keep the names here straight (especially Gracielis and Tiercelin) but that’s probably more my failing than Sperring’s.
I did appreciate that sexuality is fluid in this world, and in such a natural way that none of the characters appear to ever have the need to comment on it....more
So we all love weird fiction now, right? The Weird got a lot of attention, True Detective(and, by extension, Chambers and Ligotti) was everywhere, the Southern Reach trilogy (which are weird, genre-specific books, marketing be damned) is huge, and now we have the first-ever annual year’s best series devoted to the field. I think that an argument could probably be made tracing this explosion back to the success of Lost… but actually making that argument would require a re-engagement with Lost, which I’m not willing to do.
Of course, a helpful part of this renaissance is the fact that basically anything can be classified as weird if you squint and look at it from the right angle. In the foreword here, for example, Series Editor Michael Kelly tells us that the weird “includes ghost stories, the strange and macabre, the supernatural, fantasy, myth, philosophical ontology, ambiguity, and featuring a helping of the outré. Weird fiction, at its best, is an intersecting of themes and ideas that explore and subvert the laws of Nature.” While that first sentence supports the idea that pretty much anything goes (and it doesn’t even mention science fiction, which is nonetheless present in this anthology), that second sentence seems more useful in delineating what’s going on here. Along those same lines, Laird Barron, the Guest Editor for this volume (there will be a new one every year, with Kathe Koja taking up the reigns for the imminent Volume 2), writes in his introduction that a weird tale “contravenes reality in some essential manner; that it possesses at least a hint of the alien; and that it emanates disquiet or disorientation.” I wouldn’t disagree with any of that, but I think it has to be possible to pin down the genre a bit more.
So then what is weird fiction? I’m not entirely sure anymore that that is a question that is worth answering, but it’s hardly fair to critique other people’s definitions without offering one of my own, so:
Stories wherein an irruption (the two definitions of which I’m kind of mushing together here: “to rush in forcibly or violently” and “to undergo a sudden upsurge in numbers especially when natural ecological balances and checks are disturbed“) of otherworldly/supernatural/contranatural/uncanny Weirdness provides a liminal threshold between the rational world and wherever else the protagonist finds herself.
Unpacking that a bit gives us some tendencies, at least some of which must be present but not necessarily all (weird fiction being a fuzzy set, of course):
1. Tonally dark, often increasingly-so as the work progresses 2. Brings about an epistemological shift in the protagonist and/or narrator (and reader?) that decenters humanity, and perhaps especially reveals the modern/rational worldview to be fundamentally flawed. - I wrote elsewhere that this liminality makes sense “both in its larger sense of a threshold, and its more esoteric/academic sense: the middle stage of a ritual, after the previous relationship with the world has been dissolved but before the new one has been put into place.” 3. An intrusion of supernatural/uncanny/irrational/Wrongness - This is the opposite of Clute’s thinning - the larger, richer reality is intruding rather than receding, and its absence would not be mourned. 4. At the end of the story, the status quo remains upended 5. Lacks a good/evil binary 6. Curiosity lands the protagonist in hot water (so the binary tends toward knowledge/ignorance) 7. Narrated from within our world 8. Not sure about this one, but: rarely weird (unusual/innovative/outlandish) in a narrative or structural sense?
Where that leaves me, I’m afraid, is more and more convinced that weird fiction is simply fantastic/supernatural horror that is perhaps just a bit more intellectually-inclined. Horror is, with the possible exception of romance, probably the most reviled of the lowbrow genre world, and weird fiction is now, I think, possibly a just way to recapture some cultural capital for its exponents - which means we’ve come a long way from its roots in the pulps. This would account for the subsuming of the uncanny and for the claim that it is genre-fiction-without-genre.
I know most weird fiction partisans will disagree with me here, but it’s where I’ve ended up. It’s also entirely likely that all I’ve accomplished here is defining the brand of weird fiction that I personally find most enjoyable. So be it.
[Note: the below was written months before the “introduction” above, and while I wish the two sections were more integrated more effectively... they aren’t.]
As for the stories here: unusually for a generic anthology, almost all are well-written and effectively structured and paced, and we even have a (relatively) even gender spread, although it could have used more selections from non-white and non-Anglo authors.
The standouts, for me, were the four that seemed most Ligottian in flavor - “Furnace,” “Eyes Exchange Bank” (both of which first appeared in a Ligotti tribute collection), “Swim Wants to Know If It's as Bad as Swim Thinks,” and “In Limbo” - in which down-on-their-luck protagonists in down-on-their-luck communities suffer under an encroaching and unknowable weirdness. I need to read more from those four authors, but I also need to read more Ligotti.
Also of note were the Samatar and Ford stories, both authors whose work I consistently enjoy but whose stories here were in conversation with previous works I don’t know (Hoffmann’s “The Sandman" and the poetry of Emily Dickinson, respectively). The Pugmire and Pulver stories also explicitly engage with previous Weird works, although less successfully, and all of the stories here reflect and converse with their generic predecessors to some degree or another. There was a surprising lack of cosmic horror, but I suppose that’s an accurate reflection of the state of the field today - these stories tend more toward the insular (families are a recurring theme), and the evil/indifference of the universe isn't even personified in the form of Old Ones or somesuch.
The Nineteenth Step by Simon Strantzas A couple find that sometimes there’s an extra stair in a house they’re renovating. Spatial impossibilities and epistemological collapse echoing House of Leaves and Madeline Yale Wynn’s “The Little Room” (1895). I’m not sure that the ending is entirely earned - like Jack Ketchum’s “The Box” (1994), it takes the irruption (inexplicable, as in most weird stories) and makes it a winking, glaringly explicit hole in the story. This might be an intentional “fuck you” to the reader.
Swim Wants to Know If It's as Bad as Swim Thinks by Paul G. Tremblay Swim, from Someone Who Isn’t Me, from the nomenclature of an online User Forum (ha ha) frequented by our meth-addicted narrator. Swim has lost custody of her daughter, who has been sent to live with Swim’s own abusive mother. Her attempt to rescue the daughter from the mother’s house while some sort of monsters invade from the sea is interspersed with flashbacks to a previous time she kidnapped said daughter and farther back to her own childhood suffering at her mother’s hands. A fractured and masterfully dissociative fugue.
Dr. Blood and the Ultra Fabulous Glitter Squadron by A. C. Wise Hedwig and the Angry Inch in space - glamorous genderbending Buck Rodgers types take on a supervillain on Mars. Short and vaguely metafictional (mockingly generic plot/setting, names like Philip Howard Craft the Third, Richard Carnacki Utley, etc). Because I am the way that I am, it is very frustrating that I’ve only managed to piece together some of the name references, and at some point I’ll probably try to sit down and work out the others. I’m not sure that I would have classified this as Weird.
The Year of the Rat by Chen Qiufan Science fiction - young, underemployed college graduates in a future China are given work hunting down genetically engineered rats. I’ve wavered in the past on how appropriate SF is for weird fiction because of the doubled layer of removal from the real world, but it works here because the shift from rational to irrational is so pronounced and shocking as hallucinations or irruptions enter the narrative and the line between human and rat becomes increasingly fluid.
Olimpia's Ghost by Sofia Samatar Epistolary riffing on Hoffman’s “The Sandman” - which I haven’t read. Beautifully written, of course, but like the Wise story, I’m haunted by the knowledge that I’m missing something. This story never exploded with weirdness the way I expected (hoped?), because her novel has one of the all-time great mind-melting irruption scenes, but that’s a feature, not a bug - this is a slow creep of a story. Some day I will read “The Sandman” and then I will reread this story (hopefully once Samatar has a collection of her short work published).
Furnace by Livia Llewellyn A weird place story about a mother and daughter in a rotting, rust belt town. The association between family relations and a disintegrating world is a well-worn one (see Joyce Carol Oate’s “Family” (1989) and particularly Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas (2009), where this story would have been right at home and also a standout), and Llewellyn does it one better by tossing in elements of a bildungsroman and somehow still makes it work. One could also relate it to Peter Straub’s “A Short Guide to the City” (1990), but peopled with actual characters, and there’s something of Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967), too, but people with relatable characters.
Shall I Whisper to You of Moonlight, of Sorrow, of Pieces of Us? by Damien Walters Grintalis The narrator’s partner has died of cancer, and is now a ghost whose haunting takes the form of strewing around photographs of herself (himself?). I liked the combination of 1st and 2nd person, but did not like the incredibly flowery language, which tried very hard to impress but just did not connect for me.
Bor Urus by John Langan Weird as midlife crisis. During intense thunderstorms, a man has recurring visions of a monstrous entity. Like “The Willows,” this relies on the more-alike-than-you-expect casting of natural weirdness and the weird supernatural. Feels like a typical Lovecraftian declensional confession of a descent into madness, but pulls back at the last minute and veers off into more optimistic territory. The reveal of the monster was a little underwhelming, but overall I did enjoy this one. My notes tell me that it reminds me of Gene Wolfe’s “Procreation” (1985), but I can’t remember why off the top of my head.
As far as I can tell “bos urus” means auroch, but I have yet to figure out the switch to “bor” instead. Something to do with the north?
A Quest of Dream by W. H. Pugmire Even more directly Lovecraft pastiche (the Dreamlands, this time, focusing on nightgaunts), but revisioned through a rather twee, foppish kind of lens. Seems more like dark fantasy than weird to me, but I guess if it’s Lovecraft pastiche we all just have to accept it.
The Krakatoan by Maria Dahvana Headley An ambiguously-gendered child who has lost several mothers falls in with a local malcontent who has lost his wife, and they use the local observatory to look down instead of up, hoping to find their missing loved ones under the Earth. This one never clicked for me, although I can’t put my finger on exactly why that was.
The Girl in the Blue Coat by Anna Taborska I remain unconvinced that the mere presence of a ghost necessarily makes a story Weird - perhaps especially if the ghost fails M. R. James’s “malevolent or odious” criteria. This opens and closes with a famous reporter giving his deathbed confession to a ghostwriter working on his autobiography. Within that frame is a rather straight-forward ghost story about a Jewish girl murdered by Polish collaborators during World War II. This idea of the weighing of history on the present is what makes the best horror fiction effective, but we’re missing the irruption that makes the best weird fiction effective. Plus, the ending frame is rather silly (“I’m not… that… strong…”).
(he) Dreams of Lovecraftian Horror... by Joseph S. Pulver, Sr. Fractured stream-of-consciousness metafiction about Pugmire writing his Lovecraftian pastiche; Pulver channeling the Beats to write about Pugmire channeling the Decadents. Good god.
In Limbo by Jeffrey Thomas A member of the precariat has his social isolation literalized as an encroaching darkness devouring the rest of the world. Not particularly similar thematically, but the setting/irruption is similar to that of “The Mist” (1980), which in turn echoed “The Willows” (1907), which I am increasingly convinced is the ur-text of the Weird.
A Cavern of Redbrick by Richard Gavin A Bradbury-ish tale where a kid staying with his grandparents for the summer encounters a ghost and stumbles on something that’s not quite right. Some unconvincing neologisms (summerland, redbrick), and while it’s weirder than the Taborska, I’m still not convinced it slips from “ghost story” territory into “weird tale.”
Eyes Exchange Bank by Scott Nicolay An academic visits an old friend in a decaying Rust Belt town and finds himself in an exceptionally well-drawn oppressive and uncanny situation, increasingly alienated from both his friend and their surroundings. The explosion of horror that closes the story feels almost extraneous after the rest of the story. It’s striking how similar and yet how different this and the Llewellyn are.
Fox Into Lady by Anne-Sylvie Salzman Weird as sexually-charged body horror as the fear/isolation/despair of a new mother. A Japanese woman gives birth to a fox-monster, which proceeds to terrorize her. What this has to do with David Garnett’s seemingly endless “Lady Into Fox” (1922, kind of a rural counterpoint to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”) I haven’t worked out just yet.
Like Feather, Like Bone by Kristi DeMeester The climax, but where’s the rest of the story? A woman whose child has drowned confronts a goblinish little girl under her porch who is eating birds. In some ways the obverse of the previous story, but flash fiction usually just leaves me wanting more. I am interested in seeing what DeMeester does in the future, though.
A Terror by Jeffrey Ford Emily Dickinson, notorious weirdo, has an encounter with Death that emphasizes the power of words. I like Ford’s writing so much I can even enjoy him doing a story about a poet and the power of words.
Success by Michael Blumlein A story about a mad scientist and his slightly-less-mad wife. A Weird synchronicity: I have a lot of unfinished reviews of Gene Wolfe books, both because I’m a lazy and slow writer and because they are very hard books to write about, but one of the odd themes of his that I was trying to pick out through all of them is his fixation on Lamarckism. Reborn and rebranded as epigenetics, the same theme pops up here, in a kind of inverted cosmic horror unveiling/mental-illness-as-body-horror story that seems indebted to Machen in some respects. Blumlein, a doctor, writes in a very detached, clinical manner that also brings J. G. Ballard to mind. I respected this story, but I’m not sure that I loved it.
Moonstruck by Karin Tidbeck Weird as menstruation and as a vector for looking at the relationship between mothers and maturing daughters (this and the Llewellyn approach similar themes in completely disparate manners). Like a gloomier version of Cosmicomics (1965), this reads almost like science fiction ideas revisioned as folktale.
The Key to Your Heart is Made of Brass by John R. Fultz An automaton, having lost the key necessary to wind his clockwork heart, finds himself stuck in a boilerplate blackmail scheme. Somewhere between good steampunk (industrial revolution in fantasyland) and bad steampunk (Victorianish mannerpunk). Great setting, good prose (in second person), unimpressive plot, bad gender politics (to the point that I fruitlessly expected some sort of last minute twist).
No Breather in the World But Thee by Jeff VanderMeer Well, who knows about this one. Jettisons the anchor of normality entirely, which leaves us more in bizarro territory, I think. A much weirder (and Weirder) prefiguration of the Area X books - we have a fixation on repetitions of past intrusions and the Weird Place and reconstituted and weirded human bodies and even a Weird biological tower. It didn’t really work for me, but hey, it was definitely weird.
100 stories in 500 pages, so this is a collection of horror flash fiction. No editorial explanation of the choices are given, and indeed there’s no in100 stories in 500 pages, so this is a collection of horror flash fiction. No editorial explanation of the choices are given, and indeed there’s no introductory material of any sort for the stories themselves. The authors are almost entirely American, with the odd Brit thrown in here and there, and while a lot of big names are included, very few of the stories are their acknowledged masterpieces. The uniform length and genre leads to a lot of repetition - a little setup, then a nasty surprise (the protagonists tend not to fare well in these stories). There’s a lot of filler, but some great stuff too - I need to get much better acquainted with Steve Rasnic Tem and Avram Davidson and Nancy Holder.
The Adventure of My Grandfather • (1824) • Washington Irving The narrator’s grandfather stays at an inn in Bruges in a haunted room, with a ghostly musician and dancing furniture. Of the type of story in which there is no real resolution or conflict - he sees the haunt and that is that. 1/5 The Adventure of My Aunt • (1824) • Washington Irving The narrator’s aunt, a widow, moves into a new mansion, in which a dastardly servant has hidden himself behind a portrait, intending to murder and rob her. Of the type of story plumbed so meticulously by Scooby Doo. Dialogue from the frame story is sometimes interspersed in the same tense and person as the story, which is quite jarring. 1/5 The Adventure of the German Student • (1824) • Washington Irving A melancholic German student studying in Paris during the revolution makes the acquaintance of a beautiful guillotine victim. Although it’s an anti-Enlightenment tale at heart, it’s a more effective tale of creepiness than the prior two. As always, although it was also in Straub’s “American Fantastic Tales,” I liked it better here. 3/5 Ants • (1987) • Chet Williamson A man mistreats ants, so the ants mistreat him. The antagonist (get it?) is compellingly sketched in a very short amount of time, although the ending is a bit goofy for my taste. 3/5 The Assembly of the Dead • (1990) • Chet Williamson An American congressman visits an unnamed country to retrieve the body of one of his constituents. A shady character offers to return the body for a sum of money, but when the congressman sees it, he realizes only some of the body parts are from the man he is looking for. He goes through with the deal, but this causes him no small amount of existential dread. 4/5 At the Bureau • (1980) • Steve Rasnic Tem An incredible Kafkaesque story of dead-end jobs and inhumane officescapes. Even if I don’t like any of the rest of the stories in this book, which seems unlikely, this one makes the whole thing worthwhile. 5/5 Babylon: 70 M. • (1963) • Donald A. Wollheim Predicated on a coincidence too ridiculous to work - a scholar receives an ancient Babylonian urn to restore and research just as his neighbor is reading a Babylonian-related nursery rhyme to her child. Putting the two together, he stumbles into an ancient bit of magic. Very (M. R.) Jamesian, but not effectively so. 2/5 Berenice • (1835) • Edgar Allan Poe (variant of Berenice—A Tale) Poe and I just don’t really get along - this pulls from his usual grab bag of tricks (being buried alive, a guilty conscience, mental illness and bizarre fixation on a beautiful woman), none of which do much for me, and his hysterical writing style continues to grate on me. 1/5 Beyond the Wall • (1907) • Ambrose Bierce A man visits a childhood friend and finds him decrepit and living in the presence of a ghost who knocks on the outside of an upper story wall. The friend proceeds to fill the narrator in on the back story - the ghost is that of a woman who was once his neighbor, and they flirted by tapping on the wall separating their bedrooms. The narrator leaves and the friend dies. That’s it. 1/5 The Boarded Window • (1889) • Ambrose Bierce The narrator recounts the folklore behind a local haunted cabin - seems that during Ohio’s frontier days, a man was preparing his wife’s body for burial when a panther put in an unexpected appearance. Actually uses a lot of the same themes as Poe, but without the irksome prose. 3/5 Boxes • (1982) • Al Sarrantonio Two boys invade the home of a local hermit who collects boxes. One boy escapes, but the other doesn’t. Much is made of the contrast of the comforts of home and childhood with the creepy appeal of the collection of boxes. Vaguely reminiscent of both Bradbury and R. Campbell, but falls short of both, perhaps due largely to the fact that I fail to see the appeal (or menace) of a room full of boxes. 2/5 The Candidate • (1961) • Henry Slesar A young executive engaged in a feud with an older colleague is contacted by a mysterious group that uses the collective willpower of its members to wish targets dead. His assumption that he’s a prospective client proves unfounded. 2/5 Cemetery Dance • (1992) • Richard T. Chizmar Firmly in the Poe tradition - a young man believes himself to have received a note from a teenage girl he murdered years before, and kills himself on her grave thinking it will earn her forgiveness. Turns out he wrote the note himself. 1/5 The Certificate • (1959) • Avram Davidson 50 years after an alien invasion, a man navigates their bureaucracy in order to escape the only way he can. Wasn’t really expecting science fiction in this collection, but why not, I guess. I swear I’ve read this one before, although none of the places ISFDB has it appearing are familiar to me. 3/5 Cheapskate • (1987) • shortfiction by Gary L. Raisor A boy, upset that his parents gave him a camera instead of roller skates for his birthday, uses said camera to take pictures of his dad fooling around with the babysitter, which he then uses to extort a pair of roller skates. The story closes with the rollerskating boy being pulled by the dad in the car, but he doesn’t think he can keep up for much longer… A modern conte cruel, this is not my thing at all. 1/5 The China Bowl • (1916) • E. F. Benson What is the weird equivalent of a “cosy catastrophe” story? Whatever the phrase, this is is one - a man buys a house vacated by a widower, and the ghost of the wife helps bring her murderous husband to justice. The husband meets a gruesome end (accidentally…?) but otherwise this is all very staid and unremarkable. 2/5 The Cobweb • (1914) • Saki The young wife of the new owner of a farm waits for the 90-something-year-old cook to die so that she can modernize the kitchen, only to find that death does not always come to the ones we expect. I certainly wouldn’t have described this as a horror story, although it’s certainly about the weight of the past and misplaced faith in the present. I think that all of the Saki stories that I’ve read have been a few pages long, did he write anything lengthier? 3/5 Come to the Party • (1983) • Frances Garfield Four friends, lost while looking for a publisher’s party, end up at a creepy mansion that they assume to be the correct site, although no one they recognize is there and everything seems increasingly off-kilter. When one runs away, she stumbles onto the correct house, where she’s told the creepy mansion (home of some sort of human-sacrificing cultists) burned down years ago, and, indeed, there’s nothing there when she looks back. This one would not be out of place in a Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark collection - aside from a little bit of characterization, there’s little to no effort to set up anything other than the “shocking” ending, although the suffocating feeling of being at an unwelcoming party is captured effectively. 2/5 A Curious Dream • (1882) • Mark Twain A curious dream in which the narrator sees a stream of skeletons cadavers vacating a nearby cemetery, which their descendents have allowed to lapse into disrepair. Folksy, not too serious, very Mark Twain. Does the presence of a talking cadaver immediately place something in the horror genre? I would say not. 2/5 Dark Wings • (1982) • Phyllis Eisenstein An aging spinster, liberated by the recent deaths of her overbearing parents, takes advantage of her newfound freedom to try to paint a mysterious giant bird she sees at night on the beach. The bird eventually feeds her to its young. A relatively well-written story. 3/5 Dead Call • (1976) • William F. Nolan A man takes a call from a dead friend, who talks him into joining this passive, relaxing state. Probably the highest ratio of ellipses to words that I have ever encountered. 3/5 Different Kinds of Dead • (1990) • Ed Gorman Another one that could have come straight out of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark - a man picks up a mysterious, beautiful woman by the side of the road who turns out to be a ghost - but the barebones plot is used here to illustrate the similarities between death and a wasted, lonely life. Perfectly paired with the preceding story. 4/5 Displaced Person • (1948) • Eric Frank Russell A man sits on a park bench, and an artistic-looking European immigrant joins him. They chat and we learn the displaced person is so because of his fomenting of a rebellion against a despot. Our narrator, a good American, agrees that tyrants bring it upon themselves. Turns out the foreigner is Lucifer. The devil as the first revolutionary is an old trope on the Left, but it is certainly a good one. 5/5 The Disintegration of Alan • (1985) • Melissa Mia Hall An artist’s husband begins to mysteriously disintegrate one morning. The things we lose when a relationship ends refigured as weird. 3/5 Down by the Sea Near the Great Big Rock • (1984) • Joe R. Lansdale A family vacations down by the sea near the great big rock - which turns out to be some sort of monster that incites and feeds on negative emotions. The family ends up slaughtering each other. A bit too focused on humans torturing and butchering each other for my taste. Lansdale is another icon of the field that just doesn’t speak to me. 2/5 Dragon Sunday • (1979) • Ruth Berman You begin to see dragons infesting LA - are you crazy, or has no one else noticed because of the fog? More of a prose poem about the beauty of dragons than a story, but I do have a soft spot for writing in the 2nd person. 3/5 Duck Hunt • (1986) • Joe R. Lansdale A rite of passage into manhood turns out to be much more brutal than expected. The male bonding ritual is skillfully skewered, although this one also basically boils down to human beings torturing each other. 3/5 The Dust • (1982) • Al Sarrantonio Much like “Boxes,” this one hinges on childhood, but even less effectively so here: a developmentally-disabled (?) man, figuratively haunted by the time his childhood “friends” dumped dust all over him, is literally haunted by the dust in his home. I’m having a hard time putting my finger on exactly what didn’t work here, but work it did not. 1/5 The Evil Clergyman • (1939) • H. P. Lovecraft Looked this one up after finishing it to see that it was an excerpt from a letter describing a dream, published posthumously as a story - and that’s how it reads. 1/5 Examination Day • (1958) • Henry Slesar Exactly the sort of thing present in the Year’s Best anthologies that has killed my interest in science fiction. A boy, on his 12th birthday, goes to a government-mandated exam, but his level of intelligence has been outlawed, and he is killed. Somehow the boy (who reads more like a 5-year-old than a 12-year-old) has never heard of these tests before. 1/5 The Faceless Thing • (1963) • Edward D. Hoch Mostly great - a very old man returns to his childhood home to confront the monster that killed his sister when they were young, only to find that old age is not an exclusively human malady. The fact that said “very old man” is actually only 60 kind of makes the message a little hard to swallow. 4/5 The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar • (1845) • Edgar Allan Poe I’ve read this one several times recently and, while it’s probably one of the Poes I’m most favorable toward, I didn’t feel the need to read it again at this point. Feeding Time • (1955) • James E. Gunn We are told right off the bat how beautiful our female protagonist is, which, in combination with the title, gave me a bad, bad feeling about where this was headed. That turned out to be ill-founded, though - instead, she just happens to have some sort of psychic connection with an alien in a zoo in the future that she tricks into eating psychiatrists. You heard me. 1/5 Feeding Time • (1953) • Robert Sheckley A nerd finds a book on the care and feeding (virgins) of griffins. He assumes, of course, that that means female virgins, right up until the point that he is eaten by a griffin. Clever, Sheckley. In the broadest strokes, this story is identical to “Babylon: 70 M.” 3/5 The Final Quest • (1981) • poem by William F. Nolan This sure is a poem. Fish Night • (1982) • Joe R. Lansdale Two salesman stranded in the desert encounter spectral, time-traveling fish from the world before humanity. The older one, longing to be a part of this simpler world, strips himself of everything modern to swim off through the air with them, but the younger one, with fillings in his teeth and a rod in his back, understands that this is his world. Shockingly, things don’t work out for the man floating off with the giant fish. I enjoyed this one thematically, and it was well-written (and wasn’t about people torturing one another!) but the image of a man swimming through the air is a bit too Disney for me. 3/5 The Four-Fingered Hand • (1911) • Barry Pain The hereditary vision of a four-fingered hand that warns the men of the family when there’s danger afoot doesn’t take kindly to being ignored. 2/5 A Ghost Story • (1875) • Mark Twain Starts off as a legitimately scary story, with a massive presence pulling the covers off of the narrator, blood dripping, chains being dragged about, and so on. Takes a turn when it’s revealed the the massive presence is the ghost of the Cardiff Giant and proceeds as a humorous Twain story. 3/5 Give Her Hell • (1969) • Donald A. Wollheim Again, the story of humans torturing other humans - this time a man physically and emotionally abusing his wife and daughter. When they almost escape him, he makes a deal with the Devil, not realizing his wish for a second life would render him reincarnated as his own daughter - a hell of his own making. Not pleasant to read. 2/5 The Giveaway • (1981) • Steve Rasnic Tem A childhood taunt (“if you’re bad, your dad’s going to give you away”) turns out to be true. After seeing her mother carried off (by some truly terrifying entities that strongly echo John Collier’s “Evening Primrose”), a daughter vows to herself never to upset her father again. A much better handling of the same thematic material as the preceding story. 4/5 The Glove • (1975) • Fritz Leiber As good as a story about the sexual assault of a woman written by a man of his generation could be? This may sound like (or be) damning with faint praise. The supernatural elements are entirely different, but the emphasis on the community of an apartment building (and the exclusion of any other setting) is very reminiscent of Leiber’s later “Horrible Imaginings.” 3/5 The Grab • (1982) • Richard Laymon A man takes an old college buddy (who is going through a cowboy phase) to a local redneck bar where the titular game is taking place - trying to grab a ring out of the mouth of a decapitated head kept in a jar. There’s a shocking surprise! 2/5 The Haunted Mill; or, The Ruined Home • (1891) • Jerome K. Jerome (variant of The Haunted Mill) Starts with a bit of metafiction about ghost stories and Christmastime before moving on to the secondhand story of a man who buys a haunted mill and thinks the ghost therein must be trying to reveal some hidden treasure to him. This results in a ruined home. 3/5 He Kilt It with a Stick • (1968) • William F. Nolan A man has a lifelong antagonistic relationship with cats. The cats get catastrophic revenge. 1/5 Heading Home • (1978) • Ramsey Campbell A mad scientist awakens in his basement, having been assaulted and tossed down there by his wife’s lover. He crawls back upstairs to wreak his revenge. The twist ending is given away by the title. I expected better from Campbell. 2/5 The Hollow of the Three Hills • (1830) • Nathaniel Hawthorne Starts off seeming like a story of a Weird Place, which has been sorely lacking in this collection, but ends up being instead about a witch showing a younger woman scenes with distant times and places until she dies. 1/5 The Hollow Man • (1991) • Norman Partridge Some sort of parasitic reptilian monster replaces one human captive with another. A run-of-the-mill creature feature, but a well-written one, and I’d take that sort of thing over a contes cruel any day. 4/5 Holly, Don't Tell • (1979) • Juleen Brantingham A girl is stuck with her awful shrew of a mother after her father leaves without saying goodbye. Her favorite keepsake of his is the trunk in which he kept his magic tricks, and in a somewhat bizarre twist a boy comes over intending to assault her and she tricks him into falling into the trunk, which turns to be a bottomless pit (where her father is also hiding). 3/5 The Hound • [Cthulhu Mythos] • (1924) • H. P. Lovecraft Very minor Lovecraft - two graverobbers bring a must unholy doom upon their own heads. 3/5 The Hour and the Man • (1894) • Robert Barr A bandit is sentenced to death. Heavily prefigures some of Borges’ and Robbe-Grillet’s work. 4/5 The House at Evening • (1982) • Frances Garfield A coven of vampiric ladies of the evening still inhabit a brothel in a neighborhood that has mostly died out. It’s still visited by the occasional college boy, though. 2/5 The Idea • (1971) • Barry N. Malzberg [as by K. M. O'Donnell ] A TV man comes up with some sort of new idea for a pilot and ends up alienated from his family and on trial. I am confident enough in myself to admit that this one sailed right over my head, although I enjoyed reading it well enough. 3/5 Identity Crisis • (1982) • Thomas F. Monteleone A man seeks revenge against his shady employer by killing the employer’s newborn infant. When he realizes none of the children in the maternity ward have nametags, an unpleasant solution presents itself. 1/5 In the Corn • (1982) • Robert Fox A pseudonym for Al Sarrantonio - given away by the fact that it is, yet again, concerned with a traumatic childhood incident. A young man tells his doctor about the time his governess accidentally blinded him by dropping him on dried corn stalks when he was a child. Wrong, the doctor says, your brother did it on purpose and you have repressed the memory. Then it turns out the doctor is the brother and he’s back to finish the job. The gore is dwelled on incessantly. Totally nonsensical, this was perhaps my least favorite story in the book. 1/5 An Incident on Route 12 • (1962) • James H. Schmitz With the lack of prefatory material, it’s kind of weird being thrown into each story with no idea when it was written, and I would have pegged this one as a decade or two prior to 1962. A bank robber waylays some passersby to steal their car, only to find they had already Interview • (1963) • Frank A. Javor A takedown of predatory, sensationalistic journalism as science fiction where the subject’s (a grieving mother) emotional response is artificially enhanced. 2/5 ...more
Aomame, a small-breasted woman, is an assassin who targets men who mistreat women. Tengo, a large man, teaches math, and is a writer. Tengo, the largeAomame, a small-breasted woman, is an assassin who targets men who mistreat women. Tengo, a large man, teaches math, and is a writer. Tengo, the large man, and Aomame, the small-breasted woman, once held hands as children, and although they have not seen each other in the twenty years since, they are still soul mates. Tengo, the math teacher, becomes embroiled in a conspiracy to re-write the novella “Air Chrysalis,” by Fuka-Eri, a large-breasted teenager, which is a good story written poorly. Tengo, when he is not teaching math or writing, misses Aomame, the small-breasted woman with whom he once held hands. Aomame, when she is not killing misogynists or lamenting the size of her breasts, misses Tengo, the large man with whom she once held hands. Aomame has mysteriously been transported from her own world of 1984 to the mysterious new world of 1Q84, which has two moons and is controlled to some degree by the Little People, who say “ho ho.” Aomame sees there are two moons. Tengo sees there are two moons. There are two moons. One is normal, the other is small and green. The normal moon is the moon from 1984, but the other moon, which is small and green, can be seen only in 1Q84, the mysterious other world which is controlled to some degree by the Little People. Tengo has a recurring memory from when he was an infant of seeing a man who was not his father suckle at Tengo’s mother’s breasts. Women have breasts. Some breasts are large (Fuka-Eri’s), while others are small (Aomame’s). Aomame laments this fact. Aomame yearns for larger breasts. She also yearns for Tengo, the writer whose hand she held twenty years before, when they were ten. They have not seen each other since, but they still love one another. Aomame does not allow this to distract her from her mission, which is assassinating men who have grievously mistreated women. Aomame was raised in the cult of the Society of Witnesses. Tengo was raised by his father after his mother died when he was young. His father collected NHK fees. This was not the man Tengo recalls seeing suckle at his mother’s breasts. Tengo was often forced to accompany his father on his work trips, collecting NHK fees. Aomame was often forced to accompany her parents spreading the evangel. The Little People say “ho ho.” There are two moons. Tengo is a large man. Women also have pubic hair, unless they don’t, in which case they are probably ghosts, or shadows, in which case no man can be held accountable for sexually assaulting them, no matter their age. The Little People are assumed to be evil, although mostly the Little People just say “ho ho.” Women who are victims get what’s coming to them. George Orwell wrote a book called 1984. The year is 1984. Aomame yearns for Tengo. Tengo yearns for Aomame. Ushikawa, an ugly man, is unpleasant to look at. ...more
GIFTS FOR THE ONE WHO COMES AFTER Weird fiction stories about families, more in the modern dark surreal fantasy vein than horror, for the most part; veGIFTS FOR THE ONE WHO COMES AFTER Weird fiction stories about families, more in the modern dark surreal fantasy vein than horror, for the most part; very much in the Kelly Link school of quirkiness, to the point that one story (“Secondhand Magic”) almost felt like pastiche. Like Link (and most of the authors in YWBF2), the intrusion of weirdness is used here to trace out fractured interpersonal relationships rather than an anti-anthropocentric worldview/warning to the curious. These stories are uniformly well-written and -constructed, although the prose in the child-narrated stories was on the inconsistent side (when isn’t it?). Epistemology is an ongoing thread here, particularly that of children navigating between their own growing understandings and the guilt/place/legacies they have inherited from their parents. Toward the end I did wish for a bit more thematic variety (and, frankly, for more monsters), but that’s more my issue than Marshall’s. The best of her work, focused on children or not, is infused with a deep-seated sadness about time weighing on us all, marching from the cradle to the grave and tearing apart the relationships we manage to forge on the way.
I greatly appreciated that a lot of her characters were less bourgeois than is the norm - while Marshall is an academic, she resists the urge to make her protagonists the same, which is a breath of fresh air (my impression is that maybe she got that out of her system with her first collection, which I haven’t read).
By far my favorites here were “The Ship-House,” a haunted house story, and “We Ruin the Sky” which, with its Chicago setting, 2nd person voice, and unreliable narrator, seems to have been tailor-made for me. These two can be situated more easily than most of the others here as “horror,” although horror of a more complicated formal structure than most. Of the more fabulist stories, "The Zhanell Adler Brass Spyglass" and "In the Year of Omens," two different examinations of almost identical thematic territory, were also excellent.
The Hanging Game The titular game, a longstanding tradition among the children of a logging community, involves an aborted-at-the-last-minute hanging whose victim acts as an oracle for a local bear spirit. Our protagonist pays the blood price for her father’s antagonizing of the bears (“the things our parents leave us”). Weird as coming-of-age/menstruation through the generations.
Secondhand Magic From the very first line (“A bad thing is going to happen at the end of this story”) we’re in Kelly Link territory, and since a book called “Magic for Beginners” is referenced on the second page, I think we’re supposed to know it. This story is about a kid who wants to be a magician and a pair of witchy sisters, so we get meditations on magic, and language, and, frankly, I’m not sure I followed what Marshall was trying to accomplish with this one.
I’m the Lady of Good Times, She Said A pair of Arizona hard luck cases, brother-in-laws, are driving out to the desert because the one caught the other cheating on his wife with a ghostly scream queen. Noirish and earthy. "The Lady of ____" is a recurring refrain.
Lessons in the Raising of Household Objects A young girl worries about the arrival of her soon-to-be-born twin siblings. Convincingly lonesome as she becomes increasingly distrustful of her parents and fixated instead on a Campbell’s soup can as she descends into surreality.
All My Love, A Fishhook The rocky relationships of three generations of fathers and sons in Greece and, again, the distrust of a new sibling/other family, this time also with the ocean and superstition and a mysterious statue. “This is the great fear of fatherhood. To know that love is a chancy thing.”
In the Year of Omens A fourteen-year-old girl feels left out and alienated because her peers are all experiencing weird happenings (“omens”) and then dying. The weird as burgeoning adulthood, and sexuality, and the shift in the world after the death of a parent. Adults try to keep knowledge of these omens away from their children, unsuccessfully.
The Santa Claus Parade One of the few stories here not concerned with family, although the protagonist is a teenager - here instead we’re focused on a boy working at a company that makes Santa Clauses in a vaguely dystopian setting, checking that all the Santa Clauses have both an anus and a beard.
The Zhanell Adler Brass Spyglass A father gets his son the titular gift for his 12th birthday, who finds that he can use it to peer into the past. The two of them have moved across the street from their old apartment, where his mom still lives - so he charts out the family's pre-divorce life, trying to figure out what his mom did wrong to drive his father away (because it had to have been his mom's fault, right?). A thematic counterpart to "In the Year of Omens," also using adolescent lust to examine the growing divide between parents and children as the latter age into adulthood; this time also with a subtle critique of misogyny.
Death and the Girl from Pi Delta Zeta A story of Death personified as a frat boy, playing off horror movie cliches involving sorority girls, seguing into a low-key meditation on aging and relationships.
Crossroads and Gateways An outlier - a Yoruba/Swahili folktale of the desert Sasha and Zamani and a trickster god (Esu) and shapeshifting and man's love for a cheetah. Not a million miles off from Valente's Orphan Tales, what with the emphasis on the meaning of stories expressed through a fairy/folk tale/mythical framework.
Ship House A woman visits her aging mother at her (haunted?) childhood home on Table Mountain in South Africa. Twins, we find out, run in the family, as does the theme of halves split in twain, and sacrifice among the women of the family, and the push to leave home struggling with the pull to stay. Like Gene Wolfe's (and, uh, Kelly Link's) best work, hints at much more going on than the actual narrative gives us, and demands to be re-read.
A Brief History of Science Fiction Three brief vignettes of a woman at 15, 34, and 74, having encounters (of various degrees of satisfaction) with various suitors - the last of whom is an alien.
Supply Limited, Act Now Circa 1950, a trio of boys in "Shrinky Dink, USA" order a shrink ray and go on a rampage, driven by worry over an enlisted brother and resentment over their small-town surroundings and desperation and confusion over growing up. The former fourth member of their circle, who has left them behind by maturing into womanhood, is frustrated by their antics.
We Ruin the Sky Told in the 2nd person by an omniscient-ish narrator, in a Chicago high-rise, a quietly despondent meditation on grief and marriage and aging (and numbers) set against the backdrop of a mysterious black hole. Rather Leiberish. A masterful story.
In the Moonlight, the Skin of You I was predisposed to dislike this one because of the title, and then I read it, and I didn't like it. Overly florid and fragmentary prose about a disappointing daughter and her hunter father (the mother is dead - again, the weird as the shift in the world after the death of a parent) and a folktale that says that if you kill a buck his wife comes to seduce you.
The Gallery of the Eliminated Another story about a kid anxious about the birth of a new sibling, this one involve zoos and monstrous births and extinction.
The Slipway Grey The surreal vision of a flying shark as the harbinger of death in South Africa, after a meditation learned in college goes wrong....more
81 stories in 384 pages. That averages out to 4.74 pages per story, but in fact half of the pieces here are roughly a page or less - fragments, folk t81 stories in 384 pages. That averages out to 4.74 pages per story, but in fact half of the pieces here are roughly a page or less - fragments, folk tales, myths, very brief allegories, and so on. I can’t fully articulate why this was so disappointing to me, but it made the book feel rather empty and ephemeral. Of the remaining, fuller stories, many just fell flat for me, and several others I read relatively recently in Alberto Manguel’s Black Water: The Book of Fantastic Literature (a collection about which I had similar reservations, and which appears to have been inspired by this one). It also bears noting that the 1988 English edition published by Carroll & Graf, with an introduction by Ursula K. Le Guin, has a truly astounding number of typos, climaxing with the transposition of a number of pages at the end of the Oscar Wilde story.
The first edition of this book came out in Argentina in 1940 (Antología de la Literatura Fantástica), and I’ve seen it claimed that this is the first anthology to use the word “fantasy” to describe a collection of “genre” works, but I don’t know how accurate that is. I also don’t know if it was Le Guin or the original editors who selected the newer materials added to this edition - it appears that updated versions were published in 1965 and 1976.
Because I love quantifying things, I will also tell you that of these 81 pieces, 15 are by Latin American authors, 57 are by European/North Americans, 9 are by Asians, and 0 are by Africans, Australians, or Native Americans. Note that several of the European-written works are actually derived from Asian folklore, though.
Maybe “slight” is the word I’m looking for to describe many of these. Borges once said that there is “a kind of lazy pleasure in useless and out-of-the-way erudition," and while I’m not sure that this is a sentiment with which I agree, I can see how it would lead to a collection of this sort. For example, the following selection from James Frazer’s study of mythology, The Golden Bough, does not, in my view, add anything to the collection, or impart much of anything to the reader, it just proves how wide-ranging and useless the wisps collected here can be:
A fourth story, taken down near Oldenburg in Holstein, tells of a jolly dame that ate and drank and lived right merrily and had all that heart could desire, and she wished to live always. For the first hundred years all went well, but after that she began to shrink and shrivel up, till at last she could neither walk nor stand nor eat nor drink. But die she could not. At first they fed her as if she were a little child, but when she grew smaller and smaller they put her in a glass bottle and hung her up in the church. And there she still hangs, in the church of St Mary, at Lübeck. She is as small as a mouse, but once a year she stirs.
If you find reading something like that without any kind of context enjoyable, this book is for you - “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like,” and so on. This quote, often attributed to Abraham Lincoln for some reason, actually originates with Max Beerbohm, which brings me to the part of the review where I actually talk about the stories that resonated with me enough to bother writing about.
The stories are presented alphabetically by author, so just to give you a better idea of what we’re dealing with here, here’s what we start with:
We open with “Sennin,” (1952) by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, which is a 3-page reworked koan about a wanderer who wishes to become a sennin (a kind of wise, mystical hermit). A doctor and his wife lie and say they will teach him to do so if he acts as their slave for 20 years - after this period is over the wife tells him to leap from the top of a tree, but instead of killing him his belief transforms him into a sennin. Next is Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s “A Woman Alone with Her Soul” (1912), about which you should read Maureen’s review. This is followed by Leonid Andreyev’s “Ben-Tobith” (1916, text available here as “On The Day of the Crucifixion”), which is the story of a man in Jerusalem who has a crippling toothache on the day of the Crucifixion. John Aubrey’s “The Phantom Basket” (1696) is another entry that I can just reproduce in its entirety:
Mr Trahern B.D. (Chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgman Lord Keeper) a Learn’d and sober Person, was the Son of a Shoe-maker in Hereford: One night as he lay in Bed, the Moon shining very bright, he saw the Phantome of one of the Apprentices sitting in a Chair in his red Wastcoat, and Headband about his Head, and Strap upon his Knee; which Apprentice was really abed and asleep with another Fellow-apprentice in the same Chamber, and saw him. The Fellow was Living 1671. Another time, as he was in Bed he saw a Basket come Sailing in the Air along by the Valence of his Bed; I think he said there was Fruit in the Basket: It was a Phantome. From himself.
J. G. Ballard’s “The Drowned Giant” (1964) examines, in a quintessentially Ballardian clinically-detached manner, the decay of a giant human corpse that washes up on the beach following a storm. Initially an object of great spectacle, it soon becomes just another part of the landscape, vandalized by teenagers, treated as a playground by children, dismantled by profiteers, then taken for granted and eventually forgotten altogether by everyone except for the narrator.
Which brings us back around to Max Beerbohm. His “Enoch Soames” (1916), also collected in Black Water, is a fantastic examination of a desperately untalented author who sells his soul to the devil in order to have a glimpse of his place in posterity by transporting him briefly to the reading room of the British Museum 100 years hence: June 3rd, 1997. It’s also a delightfully Borgesian approach to metafiction: the narrator of the story is Max Beerbohm of 1916 (a real person), looking back on his association with Enoch Soames (fiction) around the turn of the century. The artist William Rothenstein (real) also figures in the story, in which he draws a portrait of the fictional Soames, which the real Rothenstein actually did create in 1916, backdated to the 1890s. In the future, the one reference Soames can find to himself is as the fictional centerpiece of the story “Enoch Soames,” by Max Beerbohm.
If only this collection had had more of this kind of labyrinthine metafiction, but I think it’s just this one, Aldrich’s story, and one other presented with a fictional author, which name is presumably a pseudonym for one of the editors.
I’ll write up some things about the other stories that stuck with me enough to invite comment later....more
Worth the price of admission for introducing me to Henry Dumas alone. I would say the same for Ama Patterson and Darryl Smith, but they appear not toWorth the price of admission for introducing me to Henry Dumas alone. I would say the same for Ama Patterson and Darryl Smith, but they appear not to have published much else. Hopkinson, Shawl, Butler, and Delany were as good as always - I would say Saunders was the only real low point....more
A day or two before I finished this I was complaining about how staid and straightforward and non-weird this book is given that the setting (dream-magA day or two before I finished this I was complaining about how staid and straightforward and non-weird this book is given that the setting (dream-magic-using priests in an ancient Egypt analogue on a moon circling a gas giant) would seem to preclude any of those descriptions, and Joy rolled her eyes at me and pointed out that
a) that’s how Jemisin’s books work
b) I don’t actually like Jemisin’s books as much as I want to like Jemisin’s books....more
In theory: an incredible story of the impossibly far future, when science has progressed to the point that it is understood only by wizards, who themsIn theory: an incredible story of the impossibly far future, when science has progressed to the point that it is understood only by wizards, who themselves can only memorize a limited number of amusingly-named spells at a time (i.e. The Excellent Prismatic Spray, Phandaal's Critique of the Chill, The Spell of Forlorn Encystment, etc.), the Earth is littered with the crumbled remnants of ancient civilizations, the Sun is red and dim, the Moon is nothing but a distant memory, and monsters and demons roam the land.
In practice: a depressingly misogynistic series of stories that have little to set them apart from other pulp fantasy other than the constant reference to the imminent death of the Sun....more
[This is as much an attempt on my part to puzzle some sort of meaning out of this book as it is a review, so beware of spoilers - not that this is rea[This is as much an attempt on my part to puzzle some sort of meaning out of this book as it is a review, so beware of spoilers - not that this is really a plot-driven book, because everything that happens is pretty clearly telegraphed anyway, but you have been warned]
They say to write what you know, so Chris Adrian, a “lapsed atheist” divinity student pediatrician, wrote a story in which God breaks his covenant to never again flood the Earth and buries the world under seven miles of water, sparing only a miraculously-buoyant children’s hospital. God’s involvement, I should say, is actually questionable - there are a number of angels involved (one each of the preserving, recording, accusing, and destroying varieties) but God himself never puts in an appearance, and Jesus certainly never does (this is all very Old Testament).
Our hero is Jemma Claflin (note the initials), a bumbling medical student who blames herself for the deaths of everyone she’s ever loved: a father lost to cancer, a mother who burned herself alive, a boyfriend who drunkenly drove himself into a tree, and, above all else, a brother: Calvin (hint, hint), three years older than Jemma, is the dominant figure in the childhood flashback sections of the book, which focus on the creepy almost-incestuous relationship between the two (complete with an insistence on Calvin’s part that Jemma never marry anyone but him...?) and always build up to an attempt on Calvin’s part to leave the Earth behind. This effort is successful at age 17 when he cuts out his own eyes and tongue and sets himself on fire (I think? The gruesome deaths in this book all kind of run together).
Calvin, or Calvin’s spirit, resurfaces in some sense or another as the recording angel who narrates the book, aside from those sections in which he is caught up in an argument with the preserving angel. This latter figure is so named because she, in the form of a huge computer lodged within the base of the hospital, keeps the hospital afloat and its denizens fed, clothed, and entertained by means of a series of replicators that can produce any non-organic item they ask for. The humans get creative with this from time to time (most memorably in the form of a gadget that translates dolphinese), but mostly they just synthesize themselves new clothes and endless food and drink. No one, for example, seems to be curious enough to ask for any sort of vessel with which to explore their new world.
This lack of curiosity is itself part and parcel of Adrian’s larger attack on the banality of our modern existence, I suppose. The hospital, sealed off and removed from the rest of the world in the middle of the night, has only a skeleton crew of medical personnel left to deal with a large number of very ill children, and so the continued business of daily micro-apocalypses of healing and dying simply overshadows the Apocalypse outside - for a while. I imagine this kind of blind-to-the-world, head-down-power-through insularity is something experienced by doctors/med students even without miles of water sloshing outside their hospital windows, and Adrian is nothing if not adept at showing his readers exactly how miserably tedious and banal this situation is. Readers are given no hand-holding at all as they are dropped into scene after scene of dense and alienating medical techno-jargon which is almost as far out of poor Jemma’s grasp as it is ours.
Adrian also sets his sights on the banality of evil bureaucracy, that most-favored target of authors of post-apocalyptia, in the form of Dr. Snood (ugh), a surgeon and the de facto head honcho at the hospital. When Jemma finally manifests her miraculous healing powers (did I mention that Jemma magically gains some sort of miraculous healing powers?), Snood insists that she refrain from healing any of the children until her powers have been extensively tested and quantified. The work, Snood insists, is what they are there for, and what will get them through the end of all things.
Not banal enough for you? How about the fact that the flood, a world-ending deluge that left behind nothing but the hospital, some marine life, and a cruise ship (more on that in a bit), is referred to by the survivors as the Thing. This is later amended to “the First Thing” or “the Bad Thing” after “the Thing Two:” Jemma’s restoration of the health of every person on board the hospital, an occurrence rendered banal in its own right by page after repetitious page of descriptions of Jemma laying hands upon the sick in order to inundate them with green fire. Thing Two, in turn, gives way to the Third Thing - which, in a book so concerned with the banality of not only the miraculous but also the mundane, turns out of course to be that most banal of all exercises in ceremonial (un)creativity: a wedding.
Although never named as such in the text, there is also a Fourth Thing, a plague which kills all of the surviving adults and renders the children comatose (at least until they are deposited upon the new Eden), and which is the real apocalypse of the tale. It seems that we are supposed to understand this as a further punishment wrought by God upon the survivors for turning their replicator-supplied post-scarcity utopia into a non-stop party, but as the whole thing lasts only nine months (hint, hint) it hardly seems enough time for them to have stabilized their society into... what, anyway? And as mentioned above God never seems much involved with any of this - there’s certainly no burning bush anywhere here, the angels themselves are wracked with guilt and uncertainty, and, even if no one else sees it that way, Calvin/the recording angel is convinced that it was his own auto da fe that brought about this end.
"I have such violent dreams, and yet they are never nightmares. The nightmare is the one where I wake up fifty years from now, happily married, and see a picture by my bed of the family I have happily fathered, every face smiling, every heart black with the sin I put in it," he tells us, and the blackness of sin there is literalized inasmuch as the plague slowly or quickly dissolves its victims into black ash - another repeated occurrence with which readers are beaten over the head via endless repetitious descriptions, although I must admit that this ending section, suffused with despair and ennui, is among the best in the book. The plague (or “the botch”) makes its appearance after the hospital encounters a derelict cruise ship creepily inhabited only by a thick coating of black ash and a single comatose boy. The boy, we and the hospital survivors find out by means of a conveniently preserved diary, was serially sexually abused by the other people aboard. Presumably, given Adrian’s predilections, this character was supposed to be some sort of Whore of Babylon stand-in, and is presented as the initiator of these sexual encounters.
Now, I tend to use the word “creepy”--in the sense of the uncanny or grotesque--as a superlative in describing a lot of horror/dark fiction. With Adrian, though, some of what he is doing here is “creepy” more in the distasteful sense that I do not trust what he, as an author, is trying to accomplish... “good creepy” versus “bad creepy,” to put it bluntly. This lengthy--and, for all that I can tell, entirely superfluous--aside about sexual assault, the incestuous subtheme of the insufferable childhood chapters, the fact that Jemma’s role appears to boil down to motherhood alone - all leave me deeply suspicious of Adrian’s purposes here. I’m not sure what else I expected from a book so deeply rooted in Biblical allegory, though.
But anyway, what are we to make of any of this?
Why was this cruise ship spared, alone among all the world outside of the hospital? I understand the symbolism there, but the hospital itself had become something of a party ship by this point, and was already full of children who needed saving, so why introduce this new (bad creepy) element into a book that was already much, much longer than it needed to be?
What was the significance of Brenda, the King’s Daughter, who was born the night of the Thing and who seems to be the Eve to Jemma’s child’s Adam, but then why “the Book of the King’s Daughter” to refer to the narrative of the hospital?
Or, if Jemma is Mary and her child is Jesus, what does that make Brenda?
Jemma is also in some sense Moses, leading her flock to the new land, but are we supposed to understand that she has successfully aided the children, or that she has failed the adults and been struck down for it? Both? Neither?
Pickie Beecher is either a child with a variety of ailments, including pica, which leads to him eating blood, or else a 130-some-year-old vampire, which also leads to him eating blood. Either way, he’s Jemma’s chief disciple, and is viewed by the preserving angel as an abomination, and is then tossed overboard by the accusing angel (who has been disguised as an amnesiac pulled from the sea - why?), a while after which he floats back onto the hospital with no trace of his former character. Why?
The second of Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, following The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. As you would expect with a title like “The Broken Kingdoms,” thiThe second of Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy, following The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. As you would expect with a title like “The Broken Kingdoms,” this book is about one woman’s struggle over a few days (Joy insists that it was actually weeks but even so MY POINT REMAINS) to stop the murder of "godlings" in one particular city. Of course, 100kK actually involved or took place in like one and a half kingdoms, so...
Like the first book, this was the story of a young woman (slightly less young) transplanted into a hostile-ish new city (slightly less hostile) where she allies herself (if you know what I mean) with a local man/"godling" (something about that word really rubs me the wrong way) while having an antagonistic relationship with a god that gives way to something less antagonistic (if you know what I mean). The protagonist in this one is 92% more blind, and 100% more artist/less princess.*
You see what I’m getting at here - this takes place a decade after the first book and features, for the most part, an entirely new cast of characters and feels almost like a reinterpretation of the general outlines of the preceding volume, but it really was leaps and bounds better. Things actually happen in this one, whereas the first book was mostly people talking about things happening or not happening. Jemisin’s is a fantasy world in which race and gender matter, for a change, and not in problematic ways, but I’d still like to see a bit more depth in her history and culture and critique of fantastical stratification. This shallowness means these books are easy-to-read page turners, but they could have a lot more weight to them - although, again, this was such a step forward that I still have hope that Jemisin will really deliver in one of her later book (but, given the adoration these books seem to be receiving, it’s not really like she has much motivation to change things up in order to cater to grumps like me).
The romance was less front and center, fortunately, and also much less cringe-worthy this time. Our narrator starts this work with one pre-established relationship, which works and is convincing, and ends it in another that is neither of those things. Make of that what you will.
Like I’ve said before, it’s easy to write about books you love, and even easier to write about books you hate, but the others...
* 92% because she can see magic, which includes both her own paintings and the “godlings,” although the fact that she described these things she could “see” exactly the same way she described everything else (which is exactly the same way a sighted person would describe said things) was a bit unconvincing, to put it mildly....more