posted Saturday 27 August 2011 @ 4:54 pm PDT
A varied mix this time: a print anthology along with one of the digests and a couple of regular ezines. The Good Story award goes to two selections from F&SF: the Rickert and the Ryan.
- Ghosts by Gaslight, edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers
- F&SF, September/October 2011
- Tor.com, August 2011
- Beneath Ceaseless Skies, August 2011
Ghosts by Gaslight, edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers
Here’s a first-rate anthology that explores the seemingly paradoxical conjunction of the Victorian Age, where scientific romance met supernatural and psychological horror, a world of rapidly advancing technology populated by ghosts. There are seventeen stories in just under 400 pages from a very impressive collection of authors. With such a subject matter, it is no real surprise that the tales are set largely in the British Empire, including former colonies on the American continent. There are a number of Australian authors who may be new to US readers, and the authors’ notes following the selections supply interesting insights into their origins.
The title captures this conjunction quite effectively. The subtitle – Stories and Steampunk and Supernatural Suspense – is unfortunately misleading. Not all stories set in the 19th century are steampunk, not even when they involve imaginary scientific innovations. Jules Verne did not write steampunk, he wrote scientific romance. Nor are the stories collected here steampunk, even if one author lays claim to the title. Most of them contain no such element, and those that do lack the “punk” element, the narrative tone that looks back at this era from the current century with a wink of “if this had only happened back then.”
Rather, what we have here is a retrospective recreation of the 19th century sensibility, played straight, not for punkish effect. In particular, most of the authors employ a narrative voice that is one of the main delights of reading these stories. There are also a lot of nested narratives, stories discovered in diaries and old manuscripts, or told to the narrator by some strange character. I’m not very fond of the term “supernatural suspense”, either; this is a collection of good old-fashioned ghost stories, many of which would have been at home in the 19th century Blackwood’s Magazine, even if the ghosts are not all of the ectoplasmic sort.
“The Iron Shroud” by James Morrow
Jonathan Hobbwrite cannot discourse upon the formic thoughts that flicker through the minds of ants, and he is similarly ignorant concerning the psyches of locusts, toads, moles, apes, and bishops, but he can tell you what it’s like to be in hell. The abyss has become his fixed abode. Perdition is now his permanent address.
First paragraph and already I’m in love, reflecting upon the license given by the setting for authors to pull out some extra narrative stops in their prose. Jonathan is a vibratologist, a specialist in employing “a tuning fork capable of cracking the thickest crystal and pulverizing the strongest metal”. He is engaged by the widow and daughter of a man who can only be called a mad scientist, who had perfected the means of trapping souls within an electroplated coating of an alloy of his invention, thus creating an army of golem slaves who eventually turned on him. The golems regard their condition as a state of damnation and have demanded liberation, but it has proved impossible so far to shatter the metal that confines them. Jonathan, attracted by a photograph of the daughter, is persuaded to make the attempt.
The editors are leading off with a lot of the strongest hitters, and this one has it all: no less than two fantastic inventions plus a horde of vengeful spirits. Excerpts from the laboratory notes of Gustav Nachtstein reveal his growing megalomania. The author’s note suggests that readers may detect the influence of Kafka; what I find here is a definite whiff of Stoker.
“Music, When Soft Voices Die” by Peter S Beagle
Another conjunction of invention and ghost, set in an alternate history where the Ottoman Empire is in the ascendancy over the British. Angelos, a young medical student at Christ’s Hospital in London, is an amateur inventor with an interest in wireless communication. But when voices start to appear over his machinery, they are not the voices of living persons.
The details of Angelos’ invention might give some readers cause to suspect this piece of being steampunk.
He hurried into his bedroom and returned quickly with an armload of assorted wires, a fragile-appearing copper disc in a linen wrapper, and a pair of metal frames. One of these had a spindle that was plainly meant for the disc, and a hand-crank to turn it; the other featured a small dial and a needle like that of a compass, mounted on a pivot and surround by a tightly-wound copper coil.
The story, however, is not about the apparatus but its unintended consequences, as we discover that Angelos has inadvertently roused a spirit that cannot be exorcized. The prose is appealing and gives us a fine cast of characters, particularly the Turkish rent agent. It’s interesting to see how many of the British cling to their unjustified sense of cultural superiority over the wogs who defeated their empire, a theme that appears elsewhere in this collection. Primarily, though, even more than the Morrow, this is a tale of damnation.
“The Shaddowwes Box” by Terry Dowling
The narrator is an inventor and Egyptologist who has come into good fortune and is now offering a sealed Twentieth Century burial casket to selected tomb robbing collectors. He also has a staff of robotic servants in the form of mummies, although they are capable of following only a few scripted commands. But his real purpose is revenge, as his remarks to his visitors hint.
[A Shaddowwes Box] is a sealed box containing nothing but darkness. A sort of memento mori really. A reminder of what awaits us all unless we believe in a Creator.
While the automata in this work are certainly a mainstay [a cliché, in fact] of steampunk, the story is primarily a throwback to the many Victorian tales that addressed the era’s obsession with being buried alive. The tone is on the pulpy side rather than the literary.
“The Curious Case of the Moondawn Daffodils Murder” by Garth Nix
Obviously a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, in this case featuring the great detective’s young cousin Magnus, currently a resident of Bedlam as a consequence of certain circumstances that may not be discussed. Shepherded by his keeper, Almost-Doctor Shrike, he volunteers to help the police with a strange case of a man who stole an armload of daffodils from Green Park, murdering the keeper in the process.
“When Whitstable gripped the fellow’s arm, the coat and hat came off, and there was no one inside, only a great shower of daffodils that fell on to the road.”
Magnus concludes that the killer is some sort of sorcerous adept who plans to distill a deadly poison from the flowers to use in an assassination. Strange adventures ensue.
Definitely on the lighter side, although the attention to detail for which the original is well-known is not neglected. Any Holmes would know that the name “narcissus” comes from the Greek “narce”, which suggests the sleep of death. A lot of neatly-contrived fun.
“Why I Was Hanged” by Gene Wolfe
James Brooks is a wealthy man’s valet who, at his master’s ancestral home, begins to receive ghostly visitations from a young lady. She informs him that ghosts dwell not in time but Eternity, and thus she can visit any time, past or future. She will, she informs him, soon be murdered unless he acts to prevent the deed by killing the perpetrator. Brooks is reluctant to kill, but the ghost has discovered his dark secret and uses it against him.
“You bear the mark of Cain.” Her whisper was an icy caress. “I did not know it, but am cognizant of it now. I shall tell you how that mark may be expunged anon.”
As the intriguing title suggests, Brooks is caught up in events he can’t control. There is no scientific romance here; this one is dark fantasy, pure ghost story, tangled up in time and informed by psychological speculation. As was common in fiction of the period, the story is framed as discovered accidentally in a “yellowing pamphlet” dictated by the narrator.
“The Proving of Smollett Standforth” by Margo Lanagan
Young Smollett has come from the country to take the post of boot-boy in a wealthy London house. He would be happy in his new situation except for the ghost who haunts his attic chamber.
She carried her faceless head with an intent tilt, and it was in this tiltedness that Smoll’s fear formed, for she was intent on him; she tilted her head at him.
His tormenter seems to be a former housemaid who had pilfered her mistress’s beads and now presses them on Smoll so that she won’t be discovered with the stolen goods; the beads burn him, but he is too terrified to refuse her, because she will not leave until he takes them.
No inventions in this one, which is primarily a slice of the life of the serving class, in which we see that despite Smoll being well-treated, his life is still ruled by fear – much of it his own natural timidity but always the fear of dismissal, which is the same fear that rules his ghostly nemesis. Smoll is one of the exceptions in this anthology, with a happy ending to his story.
“The Jade Woman of the Luminous Star” by Sean Williams
Hugh Gordon is a haunted scientist, which is a way of becoming a mad one. Although his laboratory is full of
glass bells much larger than a man, dozens of them connected by copper wires and containing delicate Faraday cages of my own design.
He is as much as mystic as he is an empirical scientist, inspired by the notion of disembodied spirits traveling to distant worlds. It is such a manifestation that begins to haunt his home and laboratory, frightening his wife and servants and causing destruction of his notes and apparatus.
If a disembodied spirit of any kind is a ghost, this is a ghost story, another one that ends in damnation. Again we have a nested narrative, in this case provided by the interrogator who comes to question him in the Asylum where he is incarcerated in anticipation of his trial for the murder of his wife. The Victorian sensibility is particularly strong.
“Smithers and the Ghosts of the Thar” by Robert Silverberg
A Kiplingesque tale of the British Empire and domains of legend. In 1858 Calcutta, the narrator is one of the officers of the East India Company assigned to survey the route on which a vast new railroad system will be built. He relates that when Smithers returns from his assignment, he has a wondrous tale to tell:
An unknown valley far out in the Thar, the sound of strange voices floating on the air, somethings calling alluringly, sometimes wailing or sobbing, voices that could only be the voices of spirits or demons, for there was no one to be seen for miles around …
Lieutenant-Colonel Yule has already heard of this legend, for his great passion is his translation of the writings of Marco Polo. When Smithers requests leave to return to the desert and seek out the mysterious valley, Yule grants permission and, more, allows Brewster to accompany him. Months pass, and finally Brewster returns, but greatly altered; he has the appearance of a man aged by decades. But Smithers, he reports, has refused to leave the valley.
We know from the beginning, as the narrator starts at the end of the story, that this expedition will not turn out well for either explorer, but it provides us with an entertaining tale about a fantastic wonder, if not a story about actual ghosts. It reminds us that the 19th century was also a great age of exploration and adventure as well as scientific discovery, but the real setting is the world of the Empire’s pukkah sahibs, with their unquestioned codes of conduct, particularly in the face of unpleasantness.
“The Unbearable Proximity of Mr Dunn’s Balloons” by John Langan
The author Mark Stephen Coleman has met up with Cal Earnshaw, a young man with a fatal condition, who is traveling with his wife to the famous spiritualist Parrish Dunn in order to prepare for his crossing. Coleman’s own journey is for the purpose of seeing Dunn’s famous paper balloons. There is something sinister about the balloons, about which Dunn is not forthcoming.
I went to touch the thing, to add its texture to my catalogue of impressions, only to hesitate with the tips of my fingers a hairsbreadth from its paper. I was seized by the most overpowering repugnance, such that the hairs from the back of my hand right up my forearm stood rigid.
The text alternates an external narrator with excerpts from a journal kept by Coleman, in which he expresses his growing unease with the situation involving Dunn and the Earnshaws. The author’s note suggests that readers might see a resemblance between his narrator and Henry James, and there is indeed something Jamesian about the extended conversations among the characters on such subjects as the meaning of life. The horror, however, when it comes, is not ambiguous or psychological; it is overt, although not strictly ghostly.
“Face to Face” by John Harwood
Laura is sitting up late with her old friend Maurice, a poet, deeply engaged in discussion when he is moved to reveal the great tragic secret of his youth: the woman he loved was driven by financial need to marry a cruel man who isolated and tormented her and destroyed her writing, which in Maurice’s opinion was quite fine. At last, with her child’s death, Claire took her own life, leaving behind a manuscript, which was found scattered on the floor near her husband’s corpse as he lay with his face “frozen into an expression of indescribable terror, and entirely blanched, as if vitriol had been flung across the features.” This manuscript eventually came into Maurice’s possession, and it has haunted him ever since, although he has never been able to finish reading it.
A narrative very strongly evoking the spirit and voice of the century, a true horror story, although centering more on a dying woman’s curse than her actual ghost.
“It seemed to reach directly into that part of the soul which believes upon instinct, like a child, but which is normally inaccessible to us except in moments of absolute terror or utter despair. Something, I know not how it was done, caused me to recall with intolerable vividness every mean or contemptible thing I had ever done, from earliest childhood, and worse, every good deed I had left undone.”
“Bad Thoughts and the Mechanism” by Richard Harland
The narrator as a child suffered so dreadfully from nightmares that his parents took him for treatment to Dr Kessel for his experimental treatment. Kessel was confident that his mechanism would draw off Anthony’s “bad thoughts.” In the night, the boy explores the facility.
The first room was different again, with rows of metal frames and open cabinets, containing apparatus of glass, brass, and copper. This room was better lit, not only by overhead light bulbs, but also by the glowing of the apparatus itself. Tubes, domes, and spirals of glass shimmered with an uncanny yellowish light.
The author’s note states that he considers this one to be steampunk, and I believe it does come closer than any other in this collection. The century was a heyday for theories of brain and its dysfunction, and ingenious devices intended to treat it. Anthony’s description of being strapped into the mechanism is very much like that of undergoing a CAT scan, which many people find scary enough without sinister voices emitted by the wires. Essentially, however, this is a mad scientist story, well within the boundaries of horror. There is a definite resemblance to the Beagle piece, above, which is always a risk in anthologies with such a specificity of subject matter.
“The Grave Reflection” by Marly Youmans
The narrator is apparently Nathaniel Hawthorne, who answers an urgent summons from a good friend in deep distress. Theron Saxton’s twin brother has recently died, and ever since, he has been seeing his brother’s image in every reflective surface; the mirrors in his house are shrouded in funereal black. Saxton is relieved that Hawthorne can also see the ghostly image; it is not that he is mad. However,
“now that I know that others can discern the thing I fear, that I shall be forced to keep myself monastic in dread that others will glimpse this – this grotesquerie that haunts reflection. It harms my brother’s memory that elsewise would shine and be a comfort. But more, it means that I cannot be free until they shut my eyes and nail the coffin lid upon my face.”
Here is a true ghost story, a haunting spirit of the dead. This is certainly the sort of subject matter with which Hawthorne dealt, yet I find it rather more cheery than his usual sort of tale, less steeped in guilt, sin and psychological complexity. It has perhaps one of the happiest endings in the book, relatively speaking. I do find it hard to credit the serendipity of discovering the very specific solution to the problem; it makes things quite a bit too easy.
“Christopher Raven” by Theodora Goss
Lucy has returned to her old school, where she exchanges reminiscences with her old roommates; it seems they were all haunted in their last year by dreams of a dead poet, the eponymous Raven. At last the girls discovered the mystery of his death and why his spirit haunted the place.
These events have all taken place long ago; the four women now have only to reflect on the ways the encounter had affected them and probably changed their lives. This is all very well, but I can’t accept the premise that Raven’s dying would have gone unnoticed at the time, and for so long afterwards. The narrative voice feels out of place, too modern. In her note, the author tells us it was inspired by Du Maurier’s Rebecca, a work from decades past the Victorian Age. I must say, however, that I don’t particularly hear the voice of the novel in this story.
“Rose Street Attractors” by Lucius Shepard
Samuel Prothero is an alienist who is engaged by a man shunned by good society because of his residence in a former whorehouse in a depraved part of London. But Jeffrey Richmond turns out to be an accomplished inventor with philanthropic motives. He has erected several models of what he calls “attractors”, meant to pull particles from London’s polluted air, rather in the matter of the electrostatic air purifiers of today. In this case, however, one of the machines attracts ghosts along with the grime, and one of these happens to be Richmond’s sister, who turns out to have been the brothel’s owner. Prothero has been engaged for the impossible task of psychoanalyzing the ghost, but he finds himself plunged into a deeper horror.
I had grown accustomed to ghosts during my stay at Richmond’s house, even to the point of being on speaking terms with one, and their formal apparitions, the images, fragmentary and otherwise, of the men and women they had been in life had almost no effect upon me; but this glimpse of the raw stuff of the spirit – that was how I countenanced it – left me petrified, my heart squeezed and stilled for an instant by cold, steely fingers, and made me fully aware of the depths of the pit into which I had lowered myself.
While this is another piece that might have a tenuous claim to the steampunk label, its essence is the horror story, a complicated ghost story with glimpses at what is worse than ghosts. It is also a murder mystery and a portrait of obsessive madness.
“Blackwood’s Baby” by Laird Barron
Luke Honey [referred to throughout the text by this name and also addressed by some of the other characters as “Mr Luke Honey” – which I find peculiar] is a man with a dark past who has spent the last several years as a white hunter in Africa, when he is invited home, in a way, to participate in a famous annual hunt held in the forests of Washington State. It is an exclusive group that gathers in the Black Ram Lodge, the sportsmen chosen either for their wealth or their skill – the group that includes Luke Honey. Their quarry is a famous stag said to be the offspring of the devil. What is later revealed is that every year at least one of the hunters dies.
The longest story in the book, and the one I like least. Although it is clear from the beginning that Luke Honey is a damned soul, this is overt horror more than psychological, featuring not ghosts but a diabolic creature and possibly even the Old One himself. The atmosphere is extremely dark and foreboding, even from the beginning, with “the evil stink of dogs swaggering in anticipation of murder.” The setting, some time after WWI, seems out of place in this collection. What I cannot accept is the alleged great age of the evil we encounter. The valley was allegedly first settled by the Europeans in the 1860s, which is little more than half a century before the time of the story. Yet,
There was a clearing, its bed layered with much and spoiled leaves. Unholy symbols were gouged into the trees, brands so old they’d fossilized. It was a killing ground of antiquity and Scobie had prepared it well.
But the images we find here are European in origin, not Native American; the scene is impossible to accept in that time, in that place.
“Mysteries of the Old Quarter” by Paul Park
Dr Philippe Delorme has been brought to New Orleans at the request of a M Maubusson, who has sponsored a series of lectures on the subject of evolution. Maubusson however, is quite mad; his real intention is to enlist Delorme’s aid in communication with the dead.
In other words, he begged me to revisit the worst moments of my life, because he also (as I might have guessed!) had lost someone who was dear to him. His only daughter, a young lady not yet twenty years old, was recently deceased under painful and mysterious circumstances.
Here is a descent into damnation, as Delorme’s guilt festers in his mind and the ghost who haunts him drives him further into insanity, like a moth into a flame it cannot resist, and leaving a trail of death behind him.
This is definitely the most enigmatic story in the book, told as a series of letters and fragments written or saved by Delorme. The author makes good use of the setting, particularly the relationships among the races in which Delorme finds himself.
“The Summer Palace” by Jeffrey Ford
The only secondary-world setting in the book, it being Ford’s Well-Built City, home to the Physiognomists. It purports to be a series of manuscripts discovered in the city’s ruins and written by an insufferable creature well-known to reader of this trilogy: Physiognomist Cley, who has been sent to the Summer Palace in winter to investigate an apparently non-mysterious death. The victim’s widow, daughter and servant, however, all insist that he was killed by a ghost called the Sanctity of Grace, who will murder them all if not prevented.
“She comes at night, out of the old cemetery, sometimes wailing, sometimes humming as if to a child at bedtime. She glows green in the dark and her face is cruel.”
When the deaths continue, Cley is forced to take the possibility of this apparition seriously.
Taking the story seriously is not possible. This is humor, an amusing piece in an eccentric setting that bears a slight resemblance to the Victorian world but is mostly sui generis. There are, however, a deranged sort of scientists and definitely a ghost.
F&SF, September/October 2011
Mostly mid-length fiction this time, twelve pieces in all, several with warnings about content inappropriate for children. There seems to be a larger proportion of science fiction than is usual here.
“Rutger and Baby Do Jotenheim” by Esther Friesner
Farcical fantasy. Professor of mythology, his stripper girlfriend and her yappy dog get lost in the forests of northern Minnesota, where they happen upon the frost giants, there for the muskie season. Absurdities ensue.
The teacup poodle was safe in the keeping of a titanic young man in a Minnesota Vikings sweatshirt. “Titanic” was not just a figure of speech, in his case. The blond, frosty-eyed lad was at least twelve feet tall, though in perfect proportion. As Rutger gaped ever upward at the muscular stranger, Mister Snickers got a nosebleed from the altitude.
Some familiarity with the myths should make this heavy-handed humor go down more easily; we know the name of that guy isn’t “Lucky”.
“A Borrowed Heart” by Deborah J Ross
Beginning as a period paranormal romance. Lenore is a courtesan, summoned home because her younger sister is deathly ill, from what Lenore suspects is a supernatural source. She soon encounters the suspect, a suitor of dubious origins.
Her mouth went dry. He was too beautiful, too pale and deathly to be mortal. She dared not breathe for fear of what she might inhale, the lingering taint of the grave.
A rather unexpected twist makes for a different kind of story about love, although the overall tone is still that of the romantic genre.
“Anise” by Chris DeVito
A totalitarian world in which the dead are reconstructed with new augmented bodies – apparently regardless of the individual’s will, as one character complains, “You can’t even fucking die anymore.” Anise’s husband Robert has been reconstructed, and ever since, he has been obsessed with the machine aspect of himself, emotionally distant.
His depersonalization, the dehumanization with which he has collaborated so willingly since his death, is not something she will be able to deal with for much longer. The more she comes to think of him as a machine, the more her own humanity drains away.
She confides her problems in an AI at work and in a co-worker. But Paul turns out to be dead and reconstructed, himself. Anise freaks out, imagining herself in a nightmare in which she is the only person still alive, like an old zombie movie.
There are indeed scenes here that could disturb the sensitive. Sex is central to this story, adult science fiction in the best way: the complicated relationships among sex and life and love. Anise and Robert can’t love each other from the opposite sides of the death/machine barrier, although it would seem that their marriage may never have contained much love or good sex to begin with. But it’s very odd that the text begins with Anise thinking that sex had gotten better since Robert died, as this is only true in respect of the timing of his erection. It’s clear that, in fact, sex with mechanized Robert is a depressing experience for her. In a story that otherwise explores these issues so deeply and insightfully, that line stands out with its wrongness.
“Where Have All the Young Men Gone?” by Albert E Cowdrey
Cowdrey shifts his setting to Austria, where Henry Peirce visits a military museum reported to be haunted by a ghost called “the Milkmaid” who lures young men away, never to be seen again. While Henry is in town, a young man, engaged in an assignation with the museum’s attractive assistant director, mysteriously disappears. Unwisely searching the museum at night, Henry has an encounter.
Henry had a sudden vision of other young men, frightened and far from home, seduced into self-destruction by some image of love — mother, father, mistress, friend — saying, Come with me. You don’t have to go to war. I’ll show you the way to go home.
A rather standard ghost story is given a note of poignancy by the images of war it evokes. Who does not know the answer to the question posed by the title?
“What We Found” by Geoff Ryman
Patrick grows up in Nigeria among his crazy, dysfunctional family. Although he has never been considered the clever one [that was Raphael, who went crazy like their father] he managed to go to university and become a full professor, based on his research that showed how mice, in a Lysenkoistic manner, managed to pass on the stress from their infancy to the next generation. Because of this, he fears that his own genes have become tainted; he fears his impending marriage will produce tainted offspring. But the more he repeats his experiments, wanting to replicate his results, the more they fail. At last, he discovers that the observer effect is operating; the more scientists repeat their work, the less certain the results.
Simply put, science found the truth and by finding it, changed it. Science undid itself, in an endless cycle.
Some day the theory of evolution will be untrue and the law of conservation of energy will no longer work. Who knows, maybe we will get faster-than-light travel after all?
The sciencefictional aspect of this can’t be taken seriously as science, but it works on a thematic level, as Patrick finds hope at last in uncertainty. Essentially, this is a story about family, and Patrick’s family is an appallingly fascinating one.
“The Man Inside Black Betty” by Sarah Langan
Omitting the lengthy subtitles and the attribution to a fictitious author, who visits the official expert on the black hole named Black Betty, lately appeared in the sky above Long Island Sound. Nicholas Wellington is a career enfant terrible who has spent his life pissing people off, particularly his bosses at various universities and think tanks. But he’s also the guy who predicted the behavior of this black hole before it happened.
But Wellington was second on Homeland Security’s list. General Patrikakos first called Francis Howell, Wellington’s former employer at Cornell, and offered him the position of black hole consultant at DARPA. Howell had published widely in recent years, mostly on the basis of Wellington’s notebook computations. He claimed, and still claims, that the hole was dangerous and required the immediate discharge of a nuclear weapon in order to “startle” it into collapse.
What we have here is a fragmentary character portrait of an extraordinary man we never really get to know. Langan has done at least one other, quite different piece about a black hole/gravitational anomaly named Black Betty – whether this is the same event is not clear.
“Bright Moment” by Daniel Marcus
Arun is a rogue, the kind of guy who would jeopardize a large terraforming project to go surfing an ammonia ocean of the Jovian moon they are about to alter forever. Just before he wipes out, he spots something large and squid-like with him in the wave.
Arun felt a vibration through the powersled, a vast low-frequency murmur, the world-ocean getting ready to kick his ass. Just as he was about to be sucked beneath the monstrous swell, he activated the sled. He surged forward and stood as the sled began to accelerate up the face of the wave.
We’re all familiar with this scenario – the costly project vs the indigenous alien species that terraforming will destroy. Here, however, the issue is not the usual conflict of capital against environment but Arun’s reaction when his group marriage expels him, leaving him more alone than he had expected to be.
“The Corpse Painter’s Masterpiece” by M Rickert
An intriguing title, a very strange and strangely beautiful work, edging over the border of the surreal, about death and the human heart, less about the corpse painter than the sheriff who brings him the bodies from the prison, to be painted before their funerals. Neither the sheriff nor his wife has ever been the same since the death of their young son, years ago.
The sheriff crawls back in bed beside her. They lie side by side, watching the light flicker, expand, and diminish, until they fall asleep, sleeping peacefully through one of the hardest mornings of the year, into the afternoon, when the corpse painter arrives, drawn by the strange light emanating from the uncurtained window, he watches the sleeping sheriff and his wife, entwined as though they were two sides of a broken heart in a body composed of bones and light.
Original and moving, in a not-really-macabre way.
“Aisle 1047” by Jon Armstrong
Tiffan3 is a saleswarrior for one of the old brands now under attack by newer, cheaper rivals.
When she had won the job with Proctor out of the academy, she thought she had made it. She would perfect her verse, presence, and persona in the Aisle, and her numbers would rise. And they did. Once she had enough customers, fans, and followers, she would get her own line. Tiffan3 by Proctor it would read, the logotype the output of thousands of man-hours of design and consideration. From there, who knew?
But now Proctor is doing a relaunch and she isn’t going to be included. Tiffan3 volunteers for advanced training and returns to the saleswars fresh from the dojo to meet a changed salesworld. Blood will flow in the Oral Care aisle.
Dark humor. A depressing Japanese-inspired dystopia where extreme measures seem to have been taken to pry customers away from online shopping and back into stores.
“Spider Hill” by Donald Mead
Back in 1918, ol’ Doc Spider did a Halloween show up on Spider Hill, and twenty-three people dropped dead. Ever since Gina’s Gran, the witch, has done her ritual dance up on the hill to bring back the dead. Now Gina is her apprentice and does the dance with her, but now she has discovered that Gran is actually taking revenge on Doc Spider, who got her pregnant and threw her over. Gina is determined to save the other twenty-two souls trapped with him, but this will take a strong sacrificial magic.
A look into the human heart, with a mix of horror and humor, particularly in the scenes that make this one of the less younger-reader-appropriate selections.
Simon and Margaret were a funny pair nude. Him, wiry and speckled, his thing shriveled to the size of a walnut in the autumn air. And Margaret, plump, her breasts lying flat and adding to her barrel shape.
Egan had a boyish sense of freedom — already dancing around in jittery circles, his wiener dangling like a worm on a fishing line. He wore a fat grin.
But the magic has an inauthentic, made-up feel to it, that fails to convince.
“Overtaken” by Karl Bunker
Almost four hundred years ago, a crewed starship set out from Earth to reach a habitable planet. During its voyage, contact with the homeworld was cut off. Now the Aotea has been overtaken by a posthuman ship, bringing it the news that “humanity has transcended the limitations of the flesh.”
“Aotea, faithful ship, you have been overtaken. Your mission, like your technology, has become obsolete. When configured into vessels like myself, intelligences can travel at point nine c. Space is open before us. And we have no need to look for so-called ‘habitable’ planets, or planets of any kind. Your mission, carrying fifty biological entities across light-years, has become an absurdity. Your crew could circle between your primary destination and Earth-space a dozen times over in the time it will take you to complete your voyage.”
The new ship wants the Aotea‘s AI to initiate the same transformation among the members of its crew. In reply, the AI tells it a story about the indomitable human spirit.
The editorial blurb calls this one a story from the tradition of the Golden Age of SF, and indeed it captures much of the spirit of those bygone years. There is an uncritical tone here, which suggests that the Aotea‘s human-centric values are not questioned, or its final decision. But to me, there is a great deal to be questioned here, beginning with the fact that the rogue ship ignores its own prime directive and acts without consulting its human crew, supposedly on that crew’s behalf.
“Time and Tide” by Alan Peter Ryan
A ghost story. Frank’s family was broken when he is sixteen by the drowning death of his brother, Bill Junior. When Junior went under the water, Frank stood and did nothing, not knowing what to do.
He scanned the beach to his right and left, beyond the lifeguard stand. Of course Junior was not on the beach. Junior was in the water. But where? Frank surveyed the surface of the water again. He opened his mouth to shout. But to shout what? To whom? He walked down to the edge of the water, his eyes still surveying the surface. A glaring light came off the shifting surface and the rolling swells. There was no sign of Junior. I should do something, Frank thought. But what was there to do? He glanced sideways again at the lifeguards. They were talking and untroubled. He looked steadily out at the water. Junior had to be right out there. At any second, Junior’s head would pop out of the water and he would wave an arm. Frank half-raised his right arm to wave back. But there was nobody to wave to.
Afterwards, Frank went into his brother’s room, where he thought he could sense the ghost of his brother in an old wardrobe, seeing through the eyes of Junior trapped under the water, watching his brother do nothing.
This is a posthumous story. The editorial blurb informs us that the author died before the issue was put into print. Reading it, we can see how much this was a loss to the field. Ryan’s prose exhibits a fine mastery of detail and a firm grasp of human emotion, particularly the dynamics of a family. The conclusion is emotionally devastating.
Tor.com, August 2011
The site has lately been putting up some nice original fiction.
“A Vector Alphabet of Interstellar Travel” by Yoon Ha Lee
Lee has become one of my favorites of the newer writers I encounter online. Originally, I took her to be a fantasy author, but in fact her work tends to be science fiction – often of a very fantastic sort. That is the case in the current very short fiction, a work of pure imagination describing the place that different modes of interstellar travel might have in the lives of different starfaring races.
In the peregrinations of civilizations grand and subtle, each mode of transport is an alphabet expressing their understandings of the universe’s one-way knell. One assumes that the underlying universe is the same in each case.
Beautifully-done little kernels of concentrated story.
“Swingers” by Robert Reed
Reed is such an accomplished master of the short story that he can do whatever he pleases with it, and it usually works. Thus the young couple here, whom he designates not by their names but codewords: Caribou [for the coffee shop where they met] and Marriage [his intention]. They get off to a somewhat rocky start in their life together, but they both discover a meaningful – in different ways – sexual relationship with an older couple living nearby. Then it is revealed that alien beings have come to Earth and want to participate in group sex with humans. The older neighbor, who works for the government, has volunteered their foursome for this alien congress.
Once, just once, Caribou says yes to the Joining. And after that she remains remarkably quiet, about aliens or most everything else. Her silence terrifies the others. Four humans is the minimum; nobody can quite explain why. But every evening, wine and some contrived excuse brings the Spies down the street. They seem quite a bit older than last week. Their smiles are big and unconvincing, and they can’t stop staring at Caribou. She enjoys the fascination. She loves to watch these three supposedly mature adults talking about nothing, dancing around the only subject that matters.
A story about the human relationships and how they are affected by unexpected circumstances. You learn who your real friends are.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, August 2011
Three pieces of dark fantasy and one light.
“My Father’s Wounds” by Ferrett Steinmetz
The power of faith. Falasta is an apprentice Blacksmith who can’t perform the magical healing that is the order’s purpose. She was traumatized by her failure on the battlefield, watching soldiers die beneath her hands, which convinced her she would never be able to heal. Now her father has taken her to the sacred Anvil, where he will ask her to stab him and then heal him; for his sake, she should be able to channel the power of the goddess.
On the jagged stone bed, he looks terrifyingly old, pale as milk. It’s never occurred to me that Father could die. I’ve never envisioned a life without him. Even now, I half-expect him to tell me how badly I’ve failed.
Why didn’t I ever think that this trial would be another failure? Because it’s that sort of story. Most of the text involved Falasta tied up in angst, but the more she doubts, the more I don’t.
“Bone Diamond” by Michael John Grist
A tale of greed. In a fantasy Egypt, much different from the land of our own history, the narrator is a jeweler, a polisher of gems and bone. By happenstance, he discovers a valuable bone diamond inside a crocodile and sells it as a jewel for Pharaoh. Pharaoh, a murderous tyrant, demands more.
Carried on my palanquin through the streets, I see my diamonds gracing the necks and fingers of the populace, and I feel pride. It is an industry I have kept well. At my estates, men slay the beasts, hand them to others who transport them to butcheries in the city. The meats are prepared and sold; my estates now feed the city.
There is, of course, a price.
The scenario is pretty original, a vivid example of a realm where fear rules more strongly even than greed.
“The Witch’s Second” by Marissa Lingen
As in duels. Fast friends Forsythia and Lillian are eligible young ladies on the marriage market, but Lillian is unsatisfied with the prospects she’s met so far, so she takes drastic steps.
“My mother is wasting my time, Syth,” she said. “And I won’t have it. I won’t. So I decided that the next eligible man she introduced me to who offended my sensibilities would get challenged to a duel. And the next, and the next, until she manages to do better for herself.”
Forsythia is unhappily cast as her second.
An absurd but amusing bit of mannered romantic fantasy.
“The Angel Azrael Rode into the Town of Burnt Church on a Dead Horse” by Peter Darbyshire
“…followed by a pair of buzzards.” A title like that had better deliver. The prose does.
The spire was just ash held in shape by memory. A metal cross was still at the top, though, if a little melted. Azrael noted the claw marks on it, but they didn’t mean much of anything either. Not in this land.
The plot is a variation on the old Western where the sheriff teaches the town to take a stand against the
outlaws demons. The tone is cynical and bleak, as it ought to be, and the characters are drawn from the full cast of the damned and undead, and a lot of the dead, as well. Carnage ensues. And salvation.
The general shape of this one is very well-known to us, but the author throws in enough original notes to make it interesting.