Much of this column is devoted to a review of the ghost story anthology Haunted Legends. Also a brief rant on another topic.
Interzone, 229 Jul-Aug 2010
I sit down at the computer to review this issue and note that it’s full of stories impossible to wrap up into a facile summary. A very good sign. Now if only they could be talked into more readable type!
“Mannikin” by Paul Evanby
Alternate science. In the late 18th century, Kilian is developing in vitro fertilization of spermatozoa, except that he is growing them in barrels to full adult size mannikins in forty weeks. His work was not appreciated by narrow-minded authorities in Europe, but he has now gained the patronage of the Dutch West India Company, whose masters want the mannikins as slaves.
Alternate history and steampunk fans should find this a lot of fun, as Kilian incorporates several of the the crackpot theories of the day . “We are living in the Age of Reason now. This is science.” His mannikins, for example, speak ancient Hebrew, the Lingua Adamica.
“James the Fifth of Scotland sacrificed a couple of illegitimate children to that experiment, two centuries ago. During the first years of their life they were raised by a mute, and afterwards they only spoke Hebrew.”
“Candy Moments” by Antony Mann
As long as Becker was drowning his grief in alcohol, he had no interest in the Hub, the new facility that erases troublesome memories. Then he meets Molly, an anti-Hub activist, and gets sober. But sober, he finds his memories of his dead wife growing stronger and more disturbing.
The narrative and dialogue here are spirited, and Molly is a particularly engaging character for one who gets rather limited space. The drifts of candy bar wrappers make an effective symbol of the Hub’s growing influence; I am reminded of Wonka Bars.
“The Melancholy” by Toby Litt
An engineering report on the disappearance of the Local Application 13-13 while it was exploring Europa. The Application, known to her friends as Lucky, is an AI program designed to be downloaded into various robotic devices as the operator.
Each time an Application finishes a tour, they are beamed back to Earth as a speed of light infostream. And all of the valuable operational experience that has been gained – we call it their ‘chops’ – comes back, too.
This is all very well, but I’m not sure I buy the next part of the premise, in which the Application is installed in a mechanical device while on Earth, waiting for its next deployment. Anthropopathy is carried just one step too far for credibility.
“Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
Alternate Girl is a creation of Metal City, a creature of artificial flesh meant to infiltrate the world of organic beings, in hopes of an eventual reconciliation between them and the metal world. Or so she is told. AG lives an expatriate life as the perfect housewife while yearning in her dreams for her Father/creator, for her old home in Metal Town.
Even in the dreamscape she could smell the exhaust from passing jeepneys. She could taste the metal dust in the air. The moon shone on the gentle curve of asphalt, cutting through dusty thoroughfares, creating long dark shadows on the pavement. Metal tenements jutted up out of the point, pointing like fingers at the night sky.
The insights into expatriate homesickness are interesting and somewhat poignant, yet this is an untrustworthy narrative. Why must the residents of Metal Town be harvested for their memories, a fate they dread? Certainly the collection of memory could wait for natural disintegration. Despite AG’s nostalgic fondness for the place, she once tried to escape. There is too much suggesting something sinister about Metal Town, and it isn’t clear what purpose AG’s role as a housewife is supposed to accomplish; she certainly doesn’t know, but it might be less benign than Mechanic has led her to believe.
“Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark Matter” by Jim Hawkins
Mike and his companions are musicians, members of an orchestra that tours the worlds of the Commonwealth. They are also agents of the Commonwealth: soldiers, commandos, assassins. They are also controlled by remote from Commonwealth Command, which can switch their various functions off and on, download information and erase it. But just as it becomes increasingly unclear what they actually are, or once were, or would be without this interference, the psych officer reports a breakdown in their conditioning.
For ostensibly non-persons with no need for emotions, these characters thoroughly contradict that assumption. Mike’s remarks on critics, for example, exhibit a strong antipathy and eloquence.
Did critics emerge at the same time as stars after the Big Bang? Are critics by-products of supernovae? Were critics the second thing to crawl out of the primordial slime?
Fantasy, July 2010
There is less adult sophistication in the stories this month than I am used to seeing in this online zine.
“The Stable Master’s Tale” by Rachel Swirsky
The narrator is master of the king’s stables, so she is given charge of the newly-hatched dragon that the knights have taken from its dead mother. The baby dragon is ostensibly a pet for the spoiled princess, but the king has an ill-conceived plan to use it to intimidate the stronger neighboring kingdoms, ignoring the stable master’s advice that the creature will be too dangerous to keep.
A simple, moralistic tale with a great admiration for dragons:
great, golden bodies extending enormous gossamer wings. There were half a dozen flying in a circle, chasing each other’s tails. Sunlight sparkled off their bodies. They were glorious and terrifying.
“The Seal of Sulaymaan” by Tracy Canfield
Based on Arabic myth. The narrator is perhaps the last remaining ifrit in contemporary Morocco, recently escaped from confinement and now tracking down a diabolical enemy who has the shape of a two-headed goat. It is a nostalgic journey, full of reminders of a vanished glory as well as things that remain much the same over the centuries.
The goatherd was facing the other way, and the only other people in sight were three men minding an argan oil stand by the road. Nothing new about that, either, though nowadays they displayed their wares on a folding table instead of a carpet, and the jugs were plastic.
The author won me over from the beginning, when I saw that she uses “jinn” and “jinni” correctly, and I found her descriptions of this milieu quite convincing. It is a delightful journey through a colorful landscape populated by interesting characters — the Moroccans and Berbers vex the narrator by calling her a Saudi and bragging that they have outbargained her for a carpet.
“Violets for Lee” by Desirina Boskovitch
The narrator is exorcising her grief and guilt by making a cake for her dead sister’s birthday, when she runs out of sugar. While looking for someone to lend her a cup, she encounters instead a giant, fleshy, bleeding heart in a neighbor’s yard.
There was a gash, jagged like a logging scar. From the wound leaked blood, flowing in rhythm like waves, blood welling over the edge with each beat.
This is one of those literary things in which something ostensibly fantastic is a metaphor for grief or some other mundane element, leading to an epiphany. But the cake sounds pretty good.
“Perhaps This is Kushi’s Story” by Swapna Kishore
Twin girls: Elder Sister the heir, sweet and benevolent; Younger Sister jealous and hostile.
The air smells of river spray and fresh grass and ripe wheat—too peaceful for me. My dreams have soldiers flashing swords and cities full of buildings and the sounds of song and dance. In my dreams, I rule people.
Tribemother, who can see what lies in her heart, tells a story of children who receive feathers from the gods bestowing power, and the choices they make, for evil and for good.
A highly didactic tale, a Moral Lesson. Despite this, there is some interest in the story of Kushi and the feathers, hints of gods that are petty, quarrelsome and cruel. The frame, however, is just too much.
Strange Horizons, July 2010
Only two real stories this month, as the Hendrix was serialized.
“The Red Bride” by Samantha Henderson
Humans have conquered the world of the Var and enslaved its people, but the revolution is now at hand. We discover this in the story that the narrator is telling to a young human, which seems at first to be a fairy tale in translation from the Var.
You are to imagine that the Red Bride must be sought, hunted down by a dog, a hound. This hound hatches from an egg laid by a monstrous bird, like the ones whose bones are stone in the Vandian Mountains, that the scholars say are like those dug out of Terran soil. The egg is made from the belly-stones of the Var that go to the mountain-lakes to die; the bird eats them, and crushes them inside it, and makes it all as one: egg and shell and hound.
The metafictional aspects of this tale, the issues of translation, raise it above the usual versions. I often wonder about the dissemination of story ideas, when suddenly a number of authors seem to be working with the same ideas. Another story of a slave language and slave revolution appeared only a month ago in another zine; I greatly prefer this one.
“The Bright and Shining Parasites of Guiyu” by Grady Hendrix
Chinese recycling hell. The protagonist calls himself MC Master Kicks and thinks he’s hot shit, but the world doesn’t seem to agree. He and his sidekick Catshit have come to Guiyu to earn money to bankroll their shining future in Beijing by working in the electronics recycling business, but Guiyu is fatally toxic and corrupt.
In old Liberation movies they always show bombed-out cities left behind after the Nationalists retreated and that’s what Guiyu looked like: a smoking ruin. During the day it gave off white fumes from the acid baths and the circuit board smelters. During the night, after “Save the Earth Hour,” it gave off black smoke from the trash fires. Up and down the riverbank other workshops turned old electronics into money.
This is SF horror, but the most horrific aspects are those that are real today, not the fantastic element which serves as a symbol of it all. MC is a memorable character with a colorful narrative voice who begins as an obnoxious jerk but makes another choice in the end.
“Father’s Day” by Jen Larsen
Mad scientist destroys world in four paragraphs.
Lightspeed, July 2010
The material in this new SF zine tends to be integrated. There are often interviews with the authors of the fiction and nonfiction on the SFnal subjects of the stories.
“No Time Like the Present” by Carol Emshwiller
Refugees from a depressed far future have come to a depressed America in the near future. They send their kids to the local high school; they try to fit in.
At first their clothes were funny, too—the men had weird jackets with tight waists and their pants were too short. The girls and women actually wore longish wide skirts. They don’t have those anymore. They must have seen right away how funny they looked compared to us, and gone to Penny’s and got some normal clothes like ours.
The teenage narrator befriends one of the new girls, defying instructions from both sets of parents. But since the newcomers seem to be stealing resources to ship back to their own time, the natives become hostile.
Here are characteristic Emshwillerian themes: alienation, the way a society regards Others. It is a straightforward narrative without hidden hooks – an effective last line. It makes me think that this new SF zine might be staking out YA territory.
“The Zeppelin Conductors’ Society Annual Gentlemen’s Ball” by Genevieve Valentine
A veteran conductor reminisces about the good old days, whereby we learn that work on the helium airships leads to “heliosis,” a deforming condition that stretches the limbs; many people see the afflicted as monsters while still regarding the airships as romantic. Thus the Conductors’ Society.
Now you can fly to any city with an airdock and know there’s a place for you to sleep where no one will look at you sidelong. You can get a private room, even, with a bath in the middle big enough to hold you; it’s horrid how long your limbs get when you’re in helium nine days in ten, and there’s not much dignity in trying to wash with your legs sticking two feet out of the bath.
A short piece, mostly making a point, that mixes first-person narration with fictional excerpts. This format leaves the narrator in that role without giving him much room as a character, or a story.
Tor.com, July 2010
One of the consequences of occupying the trailing edge, as I do, is the occasional belated discovery that things have changed. Until recently, I was still operating under the fond belief that urban fantasy was an adult subgenre, clever and sophisticated. Thus I failed at first to understand why, when this website, where the fiction has usually been clever and sophisticated, announced that it was celebrating “urban fantasy and paranormal romance” month, the ambient reading level of the stories plummeted to the level of seventh grade.
Alas, it now seems that “urban fantasy” designates a type of juvenile fiction for girls, featuring young heroic female protagonists kicking ass and often seen in the embrace of that literary abomination, the romantic vampire. This explains much. I can only hope that things return to normal on this site by the time school is back in session.
“The President’s Brain is Missing” by John Scalzi
As it happens, the President hasn’t realized that this important organ is gone, and his staff doesn’t want to inform him. Alex Lipsyte, Deputy Chief of Staff, is stuck with the job of trying to find out what actually happened to the brain before anyone else notices the Presidential skull is empty – a condition his political enemies had long suspected. The answer, unsurprisingly, lies in the realm of science fiction.
“Let me remind you that what you have here—or more accurately, what you don’t have here—is a missing yet fully functional brain,” he said. “Alex, this is one case where the most ridiculous explanation you could come up with for how this is happening probably isn’t going to be ridiculous enough.”
A sharp sarcastic edge in this quasi-political thriller with a sci-fi twist. Entertainingly irreverent stuff. And best of all, it is not “urban fantasy.”
“A Stroke of Dumb Luck” by Shiloh Walker
Kit is a young half-breed warrior/assassin trying to rescue a wayward teenager from the lair of the were-rats. This will take luck, and readers will not be surprised when it materializes.
I might not be a pureblood aneira, I might be a mongrel, and I might be a sorry excuse for one of those fabled warrior women—but so what if most of them looked down their pretty noses at me. I didn’t turn my back on people who’d asked me for help. If I died for it, then I died for it.
What this really is is gaming fiction. The scenario has various hostile groups who do battle according to the rulebook unless they can get away with cheating, and just because a girl is only fifteen years old, it’s OK to kill dozens of people because they happen to be members of another group, and because killing is what the game is about and they were only NPCs, not real people. Not to mention the presence of a vampire operating on the side of Right and Good. Feh.
“Eve of Sin City” by S J Day
Romance. Sex. Eve has been a demon-killer since she died and was given the Mark of Cain, who happens to be her current lover (although she is hot for Abel, too), and the archangel she is supposed to be bodyguarding is making a strong play for her, too. A popular girl.
While the music flowed around them, he weaved his thoughts through hers. He did so effortlessly, sinuously. She knew each step before she took it, as if she’d always known it, as if the moves were natural to her. It was an Argentine tango, fierce and sexy, and Reed (Abel) was delicious with it. With his confident and elegant movements, their dance was almost like having sex with their clothes on.
It’s all like that. I guess sexual harassment is OK if the parties are dead.
Subterranean, Summer 2010
Featuring a Dragon Griaule novella by Lucius Shepard.
“The Taborin Scale” by Lucius Shepard
The Dragon Griaule is a mile-long wyrm in a sort of coma that has lasted so long the city of Teocinte has grown up around – and on it. George Taborin has come for business and sex to Teocinte, where he finds a dragon’s scale in with a jar of miscellaneous coins he has purchased. He promises it as payment to Sylvia, the prostitute he has hired, who tells him the scale belonged to the possibly-dead Griaule. But contact with the scale, cleaned of its coating of grime, produces astonishing results.
This sound was accompanied by a vision unlike any he had heretofore known: It was if the objects that composed the room, the heavy mahogany furniture, the cream-colored wallpaper with its pattern of sailing vessels, the entire surround, were in fact a sea of color and form, and this sea was now rapidly withdrawing, rolling back, much as the ocean withdraws from shore prior to a tidal wave. As it receded, it revealed neither the floors and walls of adjoining rooms nor the white buildings of Teocinte, but a sun-drenched plain with tall lion-colored grasses and stands of palmetto, bordered on all sides by hills forested with pines.
The plain is the land surrounding Teocinte but without the town or the dragon, only the imprint of its form in the terrain, as if it had long since disappeared. From the sky comes a dragon that Sylvia insists is Griaule, although much smaller and full of life. It is clear that the dragon has brought them to this place, which seems to be outside of time, along with other small groups of displaced people. George rescues a young girl called Peony from her abusers and the three struggle to live with each other until the day the dragon returns.
Shepard is revisiting one of his most popular settings. The Dragon Griaule itself has always been part of the setting, the landscape, although this time it acts more overtly than ever before. However, this action is not entirely explicable. This story is an enigmatic account of events that may or may not involve the death of a god. The obvious questions about Griaule’s intentions and ultimate fate are never answered, although of course the characters speculate, but the ways of dragons and gods are probably beyond human comprehension.
It is the human characters in contact with the dragon who are the real focus of these stories, and never more so than in the case of George Taborin, an unlikely hero. We begin by regarding him with contempt, but by the end he has become, if not heroic, at least commendable. Washed up and stranded on the plain, George tests and discovers himself. There are no great fantastic adventures; his encounters tend to have a sordid tone. Apart from bare survival, most of his conflicts concern sex, his relationships with Sylvia and Peony, his struggles to define honor and live by it. These relationships are not fully resolved, at least not that readers can understand. The characters emerge from the fire and move on with their own lives, leaving us behind with our questions.
Shepard’s normally colorful prose is more transparent here, except in the final apocalyptic scene. This contributes to the emotional realism. There are helpful footnotes [not hyperlinked, which would have been even more helpful] explaining certain matters of background with which some readers might be unfamiliar. This in my opinion is greatly preferable to shoehorning such elements into the main text; footnotes are in general unjustly maligned. The story was posted in installments, and I note that at one point in the process the publisher added a helpful to be continued so that readers would know the posting was still incomplete. I hope they continue this practice.
“A Burglar’s Eye View of Greed” by Lawrence Block
Short-short. Words of timely wisdom from Bernie Rhodenbarr, spokesman for the author.
Haunted Legends, Ellen Datlow & Nick Mamatas, eds.
An anthology of ghost stories based on “true” reports and traditions from around the world. Most of the authors assembled here should be familiar to genre readers; they include both relative newcomers often seen in the online zines and established masters, to use one terminology.
The ghosts are metaphorical as well as ectoplasmic – often memories and dreams. Some are benign or pathetic, some actively malevolent. Author afterwards provide informative details of the original legends. While the stories are contemporary, most of the ghosts come from further back in time. There is a great diversity and a strong sense of place throughout the anthology. This, more than anything else, makes this collection of dark fantasy tales stand out.
“Knickerbocker Holiday” by Richard Bowes
The Headless Horseman. When an old co-worker suddenly dies, the narrator and other survivors of Bud Van Brunt’s Flying Dutchman Fashion Promotions meet at the old Knickerbocker Holiday Tavern for a bit of an informal wake. Discussion turns to their old boss, a brutal bully who bragged that he was descended from the Van Brunt who was Washington Irving original for Brom Bones. But sometimes he made more bizarre claims. “He had a bit of a time dislocation problem. It’s as if he came out of the past and into our future,” one of his former victims remarks.
The real ghost in this story is old Dutch New York, and it is this era, as much as Bud Van Brunt, that haunts the Knickerbocker Holiday Tavern, even remodeled as a sports bar.
“That Girl” by Kaaren Warren
An urban legend from Suva City in Fiji, told by the taxi drivers.
She asks to go to the cemetery, and if you pry and ask who is there, she will say, ‘My mother.’ You want to take her home and feed her. You keep driving and you can’t help looking at her in the mirror because she is so beautiful.
The narrator comes to a woman’s psychiatric hospital as an art therapist, where an old woman, a long-term inmate, insists she is “that girl” of the legend.
The paranormal explanation provided by the story fits the circumstances believably well, but the hospital and its inmates are at least as interesting, strikingly real. The author’s afterward reveals that she lives next to the cemetery in the story.
“Akbar” by Kit Reed
A ghost city. On their tenth anniversary, Terry takes Sara on a trip to Fatehpur Sikri in the Rajasthani Desert, once the capital of the Moghal Emperor Akbar. Terry has an ulterior motive he has kept secret from Sara, to emulate the legend of Akbar, who built this city in gratitude for the birth of a son. But there is a voice speaking to Sara that Terry can not seem to hear.
She doesn’t know what the problem is yet, but there is a problem: Terry’s urgency, the bizarre sense that the stones or something trapped within the stones is speaking. She is listening hard, but Terry’s voice drowns out whatever she thought was speaking.
The sense of haunting here, of powerful ghosts, is quite strong. Terry appears to be entirely possessed by a potent spirit. Even stronger is the setting, the overwhelmingly populated, crowding presence of India contrasted with the unnatural emptiness of the seat of Akbar’s power, populated only by ghosts.
“The Spring Heel” by Steven Pirie
Jack. Ruth is a destitute whore in London, sleeping in the alleys and reduced to working the Park, where she sees a disturbing vision:
And there’s a figure up there. Even from down here Ruth sees its face is twisted, grinning or scowling, she’s not sure, and it twirls arms and legs as if dancing on the rooftops. Its limbs are spindly, gangly, too long.
Ruth thinks it’s the devil, but other denizens of the street tell her this is Spring Heel Jack, aka The Ripper, murderer of prostitutes.
The center of this one is Ruth’s sordid existence on the urban streets, depicted in repellent detail that eclipses the foul and deadly visage of Jack.
“As Red as Red” by Caitlin R Kiernan
Vampires, allegedly. Ms Howard is a graduate student folklorist doing her thesis on the legends of vampires in late nineteenth century Rhode Island. Near the end of her research she encounters a striking young woman who is quite familiar with the pertinent legends, who later seems to be following, stalking her. Haunting her. Readers will immediately recognize what she is, while the narrator, infatuated, is more slow to pick up the clues.
The window is on the opposite side of the library from where I’m sitting, forty feet or so away. But even at that distance, I’m almost certain that the pale face and lank black hair belong to Abby Gladding. I raise a hand, half waving to her, but if she sees me, she doesn’t acknowledge having seen me. She just stands there, perfectly still, staring in.
Very much in the tradition of the old New England ghost story, set in the same milieu with the same haunted houses and tombstones that inspired the authors of the classic horror tales, notably Bram Stoker and H P Lovecraft.
“Tin Cans” by Ekaterina Sedia
Lavrenty Beria. The narrator is an old man, a veteran of the Great Patriotic War, who takes a job as a night watchman at the Tunisian embassy in Moscow. He already knows the place well, as it was once occupied by the notorious head of the NKVD; before the war, he served as Beria’s chauffeur when he would pick up young girls from the streets. Now, patrolling the corridors and grounds of the place, he sees their naked, terrified ghosts.
Seasons changed but not the girls, forever trapped in the precarious land between adolescence and maturity, as if there were no victories and marching through mud all the way to Germany and back, as if there was nothing else after these girls. Time stopped in 1938, I suspect, and now it just keeps replaying in the house in Malaya Nikitskaya.
A powerful story, one of the few in this collection that evokes true horror. It is not the horror of ghosts but of what the ghosts suffered; it is the horror of history, of a monster more frightening than the creatures of fiction, because we know he was real. And most of all, it is the horror of having participated in these events, of complicity, even if unwilling. The narrator is a vivid and memorable character with a compelling voice, a man who has been haunted all his life, not by the ghosts in the house but by the ones in his memory.
“Shoe Box Train Wreck” by John Mantooth
Urban legend. Arch is haunted by his guilt over the accident in which his train plowed into a school bus stalled on the tracks and killed six children. The incident has given birth to an local legend.
Nowadays, if people talk about the accident at all, they speak of phantom trains and ghostly images of Crowley prowling the crossing at Buck’s Creek with a lantern looking for all the children he lost. There’s also a widespread belief that parking your car on the tracks where the accident occurred will cause the spirits of those six children to push your vehicle to safety.
Now he makes shoebox dioramas to hold models of the dead children, where he can imagine they are still alive and happy. But their ghosts tell him otherwise.
The moralism of this one is pretty obvious.
“Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotaiby” by Catherynne M Valente
Baku, dream-devouring spirits from Japanese folklore. A baku named Akakabu relates the tale of her lost love, discovered while relishing the dream of a lonely foreign naval wife, a dream that comes to life and tries to devour the world. The ghosts here are memories that take the form of dreams.
Compelling, sensuous imagery makes this tale a standout.
When you, sweet sleeper, wake in the morning, one arm thrown over your golden-sticky eyes, sheets a-mangle, your dreams still flit through you, ragged, full of holes. You can remember the man with the yellow eyes, but not why he chased you. You can remember the hawk-footed woman on your roof, but not what she whispered.
“La Llorona” by Carolyn Turgeon
Latin American legend. Karen has come to Mexico to recover from the heartbreak of her son’s death, but at night she is disturbed by dreams.
And there, on the sand, she saw a woman walking slowly along the edge of the water, wearing a white dress that hung to her ankles. She stood for a while, watching the woman, letting the tears stream down her face. Feeling strangely soothed.
Despite being warned, she feels compelled to seek this woman out.
This sentimental story inverts the horror of the legend of the woman who weeps for her dead children.
“Face Like a Monkey” by Carrie Laben
Devil Bird. Jimmy’s relatives think the flying creature is the devil. It has red eyes and a face like a monkey and a tail that makes Jimmy sure it’s actually a pterodactyl, until he sees it himself.
My pterodactyl dreams fell apart around me. It had feathers, dusty black feathers that ended in wing tips like fingers clawing the air in slow strokes. It had a long spear of a beak, and a face like something that had rotted in a dry barn, grimacing without lips. And the red eyes that Aunt Mary had cried about.
This one feels out of place, as the monster bird is not ghostly in any sense, even if it is frightening. Neither does the story make much use of it, fantastic or otherwise.
“Down Atsion Road” by Jeffrey Ford
Jersey Pine Barrens.
I’ve hiked through much of it in my years, and still I get a feeling that some uneasy sentience pervades its enormity. If I’m quite a distance from the trailhead where my car is parked and twilight drops suddenly, as it does out there, I feel a twist of panic at the thought of meeting night in those woods.
When the narrator moves into the area, he takes notice of one of the local characters, a strange old man who makes wood carvings. He claims to be in contact with a band of Lenape who still live hidden in the middle of the barrens, and one day he offers to show the narrator a secret, a part of an ancient birchbark book that he stole from the Lenape, a book that holds the secret of their origins. But if they learn that he has taken it, they will curse him, and he lives in constant vigilance against such a curse, always mumbling protective spells that make people think he’s a crackpot.
This one has everything: a haunted forest, phantom Indians, curses, ghosts. The narrator’s point of view grounds the story in reality, leaving readers to wonder, how much is made up?
“Return to Mariabronn” by Gary A Braunbeck
Resurrection Mary. The legend tells of a young woman who was walking home on a Chicago street during a snowstorm when she is struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver. The present story focuses on the driver, now an old man who has always been haunted by guilt over the accident. The plot wraps up the events in what ought to be a satisfactory manner, but there are too many layers of narrative, so many points of view that none of the characters ever becomes entirely real.
“Following Double-Face Woman” by Erzebet Yellowboy
Native American legend. Double-Face Woman is a traditional figure who leads people from the path of thoughtful living into self-destructive ways. In the narrator’s world, this means the meth pipe.
She raised that pipe to my lips and held the match over it for me, all for me. She never once looked me in the face, and now I know why. She was hiding half of her own, saving the truth for later. I inhaled. When I opened my eyes, she was gone.
There is a very strong and effective image here, although it is mostly a still image; there is little movement in the story, little change, and no hope.
“Oaks Park” by M K Hobson
A nameless ghost of Portland, Oregon. When the protagonist was a child, she left part of herself behind at Oaks Amusement Park to escape the constant fights between her parents. The part left behind has haunted the place ever since. The part that went home with her parents has grown up into a dysfunctional marriage of her own, not realizing that she is not whole until she hears the story of the ghost at the park.
You will hide from time and fear and betrayal and regret. Someone else goes home in the car with your parents, someone new and formless, someone who feels no fear because she feels nothing. As insubstantial as mist, as air under a sheet.
Here is a strong emotional immediacy, calling to a truth hidden in many lives. The second-person narrative makes this one interesting, yet it raises more questions: which part of the person is addressing which?
“For Those in Peril on the Sea” by Stephen Dedman
The haunted Australian ship Alkimos, which was reputed to be cursed even during its construction.
“Some say a welder got sealed into the hull before it was launched— either by accident or because he’d fallen behind paying a loan shark. Some say it was two, or a security guard and a watchdog. One website said that the ghost is of a smuggler who was thrown overboard after he’d cheated some of his accomplices. And there’s supposed to have been a murder- suicide on board, during the war.”
It is now a wreck, and a low-budget reality show decides to send its remaining four contestants there to see which ones survive.
A classic cursed-ship ghost story, in which the rumors of a malevolent presence prove to be true. But the moral evil can be found in the producers of the reality show, who exploit and endanger the participants for profit and aren’t above cheating them if they can. The characters, such as are typically found on such shows, are vividly drawn and memorable, and the author wisely leaves the details of the conclusion to the reader’s imagination, which has ample material to work on.
“The Foxes” by Lily Hoang
Fox spirits. A deadly plague strikes a village in precolonial Vietnam, leaving only seven survivors who are all transformed into foxes after they are subsequently killed by European colonists. Or some version of this tale.
This is a metafiction about the evolution of legends, and how they change with the teller, sometimes a political metaphor, sometimes a children’s game.
When my mother tells the story, she says, “The fields had nothing in them. They were mounds of dirt. There were no animals. There were no plants, not even grass. There weren’t even insects. The whole town was nothing but collapsing buildings and dead people.”
When my father tells the story, my mother’s story has no credence. When my father tells the story, there are no surviving villages. Not even one.
“The Redfield Girls” by Laird Barron
Accursed Lake Crescent, Washington. A group of middle-aged teachers from Redfield junior high spend a long weekend at a cabin on the lake where Bernice’s aunt Dolly was once murdered and thrown into the water. She has the unwelcome company of her niece Lourdes, who wants to know the story and the other tales of ghosts and curses surrounding the lake.
“I had a really bizarre dream about Aunt Dolly the other day. I was floating in a lake— not here, but somewhere warm— and she spoke to me. She was this white shape under the water. I knew it was her, though, and I heard her voice clearly.”
A fine classic spooky ghost tale. The main characters are well-drawn and realistic individuals.
“Between Heaven and Hull” by Pat Cadigan
Vanishing hitchhiker. Told primarily from the hitchhiker’s point of view. He is picked up in England by a couple of giggling American women who don’t know how to drive on the wrong side of the road. The ending comes as an abrupt surprise to the hitchhiker and a twist that the reader may find unexpected – it surprised me.
“Chucky Comes to Liverpool” by Ramsey Campbell
Chucky. Robbie’s mother is a nutcase about violence. She doesn’t even let him have a Star Wars ringtone on his mobile. She is currently involved in campaign against Chucky movies, following the pervasive rumors that children have been influenced by them to commit violent acts. But of course Robbie is only determined to see a Chucky movie and find out what it’s all about. This turns out to be not a good idea.
“They’ll bring him back,” the other girl said with an extravagant shudder.
“Who will?” Robbie protested in case he was being accused.
“Anyone that watches him.”
“Anyone that does when they know they shouldn’t,” said her friend.
This one is straight horror, as we might expect from this author. There is more here than the lure of forbidden fruit. What happens to Robbie is not natural. Even if the Chucky doll itself never appears, some malignant force certainly is at work. Disturbing.
“The Folding Man” by Joe R Lansdale
The black van. It is not a good idea, driving home from the Halloween party, to moon the car full of nuns. Who are not amused. Who don’t seem to be the right sort of nuns. Or even human.
And now he got a good look at them, even though it was night, because there was enough light from the headlights as they passed for him to see faces hard as wardens and ugly as death warmed over. The driver was especially homely, face like that could stop a clock and run it backwards or make shit crawl uphill.
Horror. Grue. Strong stuff, strong prose. Lansdale pulls out the entrails and flogs the reader with them in this full-bore splatterfest. A rousing finale to the anthology, except that whatever the nuns aren’t, they’re not ghosts.