I look at Subterranean’s Summer issue to test my tolerance for YA fiction and read Ellen Datlow’s anthology Naked City, where I give the Good Story award to work by Kit Reed, Lavie Tidhar and Jeffry Ford.
Subterranean, Summer 2011
A special YA issue of this online quarterly, guest-edited by Gwenda Bond, with nine pieces of original fiction. Now, the last time I reviewed a collection of YA fiction, I was not generally impressed. Which brings up the question of whether my negative reaction was to the YA-ness of the stories or their quality. As this issue began to be posted at about the same time of my review, I decided to make it a test case. Can Lois find YA stuff that she likes? Or is it hopeless, and I should leave this type of fiction to some more sympathetic reviewer?
In her introduction, Bond notes that some people dismiss YA as “overrun with paranormal romance and dystopia”. Happily, she has mostly avoided these here, although I find two stories with vampires; as a rule, vampires epitomize everything I detest about YA fantasy, but the specimens here are too silly to detest. The two SF pieces do have a whiff of dystopia, but I don’t regard this as a problem.
Every story in some way involves sex, and it is often a central concern. Most of the protagonists are girls, which seems to suggest that this is the intended readership [guys don’t read?]. Interestingly, it’s the SF pieces that feature male characters, regardless of the author’s gender. There is also fantasy and horror, with some pieces being quite funny and others almost tragic. Overall, despite a few problems, I enjoyed most of these and liked some of them a lot. I’d say we passed the test. Bond and Subterranean have shown that YA can be done well.
“Demons, Your Body, and You” by Genevieve Valentine
The narrator’s friend Katie got pregnant by a demon over summer vacation [demon sperm eats right through a condom], and everyone else seems to have something to say about it.
My mom said a lot of things like, “I hope it works out for the best,” and, “It must be so hard for them,” that were all Adult Code for, “Thank God my daughter’s not knocked up.”
But a situation like this shows who your real friends are.
This is a stitch, yet also true and rather sad. I like the way Katie handles things – she’s a great character done in a minimum of strokes. Very strong YA-ness.
“The Fox” by Malinda Lo
Kaede is a King’s Huntress riding on a survey of the kingdom’s borders. When she stops in a cave to take shelter from a storm [an unwise practice that could drown her], she falls into reminiscence of her past unhappy love affairs, the subject of the author’s novel featuring this character. At night, she is visited by a fox spirit succubus, who tempts her.
The problem here isn’t the YA-ness, which I don’t find very apparent, but another common problematic factor – the novel tie-in. The immediate story is a very simple episode, but it’s overburdened with backstory. Rather strangely, none of this adds much depth to the character, who remains largely a blank except for an apparent history of failed love affairs. The succubus knows more about her than the reader. The strong point is the intense sexuality of the seduction scene:
And like a fist stuffed down her throat, the kiss reached deep into her and pulled at the knot of longing buried there. Her back arched; her mouth opened in a gasp as all those tightly wound emotions came loose. Anguish, dragging roughly through her; suffocating heartache; absence, deep and vast. Yet beneath it all was a thin but strong hum of pleasure, as if she had been born to nurture this grief, and now she was finally free to drink from this bittersweet well until she was intoxicated by it.
Other than this, I’d say the story is only likely to appeal much to fans of the novel.
“Younger Women” by Karen Joy Fowler
Jude’s daughter Chloe is dating a vampire she met on Facebook. Jude, as mothers annoyingly will, wants to meet him. What does a 200-year-old vampire see in a fifteen-year-old?
“It’s just such a waste,” she says. “I mean, really. High school and high school girls? That’s the best you can do with immortality? It doesn’t impress me.”
This I like! Even with the vampire. Of course it’s by Karen Joy Fowler. But I have to say that it’s largely because it’s a story about mothers and teenage daughters, from the mother’s point of view, a place I definitely have been. And at risk of opening a can of taxonomical worms, I don’t think it can properly be called YA. It’s Jude’s story, not Chloe’s and certainly not the vampire’s.
“Queen of Atlantis” by Sarah Rees Brennan
There is a curse on the kingdom. Every year
the tide rushed on the shore like an invading army, black as ink and filled with stinking debris. Those who dared go down onto the black and ruined beach reported seeing things as strange and disparate as swathes of rotted silk, dead dogs with bloated bellies and dolls’ heads. The waters brought death to everything they touched.
To dispel the tide, the kingdom must annually sacrifice a princess. But the sacrifice seems to be a fake. The princess is sent out on the ebbing tide, the poison dissipates, and the princess returns unharmed. Now, with Mede’s beautiful sister married, it’s her turn. She isn’t frightened, and she doesn’t expect to find herself cast ashore on a kingdom of the dead.
Neither does the reader. The opening sets up expectations of something light and humorous, but it becomes nothing of the kind. This is it. Absolutely YA, an original take on the classic fairytale tropes, and genuinely moving. Mede admirably turns her back on cliché and becomes a woman of high honor without exhibiting a trace of spunkiness.
Much as I like this, I do see a couple of problems. The premise seems to assume there will always be a princess of marriageable age in the kingdom. And I do wish the author had omitted one thing: the use of the somewhat campy “Atlantis” in the title and the reference to Mede’s name as being short for either Medea or Andromeda. This story is its own, in its own world, and those references don’t belong in it. Nor does the inappropriate but currently fashionable word the editor uses to describe it.
“The Ghost Party” by Richard Larson
Charlee doesn’t think her life is going too well, particularly now that she has just tried to kiss her friend Amanda while they were both stoned.
The scene kept replaying in her head as she rode with Taco into some sort of future that she no longer really cared about: her face moving closer and closer to Amanda’s, whose eyes were closed; the sense that time had stopped, that the two of them could curl up in this moment and live there together forever. Why did the things she wanted always seem impossible?
Now her too-old-for-her boyfriend is driving her to the ghost party and plying her with too many beers on the way, and we know that no good will come of this.
A fairly typical YA light horror story. The ghost parties sound interesting at first, but we never really learn what is meant by a ghost in this setting; mostly, they seem to be losers, so it’s kind of fitting that Charlee ends up there. The author draws out the tease too long in the opening scenes, and there is a bit more lecturing than I would like.
“Their Changing Bodies” by Alaya Dawn Johnson
It seems that the boys at Camp Ondawalla have turned into vampires, but this doesn’t make them any less lame.
“Are you telling me,” said Alice, warming up to her subject with theatrics that Judy thought, for once, were entirely justified, “that we are stuck here in the woods, with crazed supernatural fanboys out for our blood, all because you just had to go and jizz on a cookie and infect everyone with some sort of vampire STD!“
Fortunately, the cure for vampirism is menstrual blood, which explains why Brandon was rooting through the disposal in the girls’ bathroom. Humor in the key of eeeeeeeuuuuwwwwwww!
“Seek-No-Further” by Tiffany Trent
We’re in ballad-land here. Ilsa’s family has lost most of their land in the Depression, her mother keeps miscarrying babies, and finally her no-good father has disappeared in a snowstorm. Ilsa has to leave school and work on the farm. There, in the orchard, she finds that one of the trees is bearing a single, oversized apple that hums her father’s favorite song.
The heart of this one is sound, nicely evoking many older tales. I found some irritating glitches, however, beginning with the five feet of snow – an amount that can paralyze a modern city with snowplows and bulldozers. Even if there had been a less exaggerated amount of snow, allowing for a “snow-packed walk” and “perfectly-shoveled driveway”, Ilsa wouldn’t have been able to see “our little house nestled in its divot on the hill. I could see the rucked-up roof, the peeling paint, the edge of the leaning barn. . . . the couple of hens pecking around the yard”, but only white lumps. I’m extremely dubious that Ilsa’s mother could have dug through the snow, the frozen ground and the roots of the apple tree to bury a body the size of a calf, or larger, and I’m also doubtful that, given the circumstances, Ilsa’s mother would have called the sheriff, and that, with a team of men searching, they wouldn’t have found it.
“Mirror, Mirror” by Tobias S Buckell
Aden is a cool hunter in a world of augmented reality where most people never see unaugmented reality.
It’s everywhere. Every seat has a pop up, every face a reputation score, every brand a coupon to try. Layer upon layer of information, crashing down like skeins of silk thrown loose in a hurricane to settle down around you.
So he is the only one who really sees that Riki is uniquely beautiful. But Riki fails to appreciate what Aden sees.
Something different here: it’s genuine SF, the protagonist isn’t a girl, and it’s not overtly YA. Although the premise – augmented reality – is not in itself original, and perhaps this is what slots it as YA, if it’s likely to be novel to the readership.
“Valley of the Girls” by Kelly Link
Another SFnal future, where some people have lots more money than is good for them. The narrator’s parents, fearing that their offspring will embarrass them, have fitted them with implants that make them invisible to cameras; in their place is a Face, whose job is to be a stand-in or double for the real kid.
If you go online, or turn on the TV, there they are, being you. Being better than you will ever be at being you. When you look at yourself in the mirror, you have to be careful, or you’ll start to feel very strange. Is that really you?
The narrator, even more dissolute and irresponsible than most of his peers, has now had sex with his twin sister’s Face, which she considers the same as incest. She has now locked him with her into her pyramid [everyone has a pyramid now] and is threatening to kill herself to get even.
This is a story of identity. The title references, not Jacqueline Susann [has anyone under fifty ever heard of Susann?], but the pyramids; the narrator places the names of all his friends in brackets, like a cartouche, but leaves his own cartouche blank. The setting is quite exotically SFnal, strangely decadent. We see the difference in this world [contrast with the Buckell, in which we are told about it – the adage is true]. Yet lovelessness and angst are eternal and universal.
Naked City, edited by Ellen Datlow
Anthology of urban fantasy, a term which has recently been debased by glittered vampires and similar abominations. This collection appears to be an attempt to return it to respectability and offer stories for grownups, a goal I applaud. It’s a weighty volume, over 500 pp, with twenty stories by a collection of heavyweight authors, including some who don’t often appear among the list of the usual contributors to anthologies.
The title implies the noir, the urban detective story, which is a bit misleading as the selection here is much broader. The emphasis is on the urban setting, the particular city where the tale takes place. In most cases, these are real cities or close versions of them, and the stories are often set in the city’s past. Unsurprisingly, New York reappears several times as a setting, but there are many other story-rich US cities used effectively, and several from other parts of the world. There are also a few cities of the imagination, most of which don’t really seem to fit in here – surprisingly, in view of the many notable fantastic cities in our genre. Where is New Crobuzon or Viriconium?
The tone of these tales ranges from the light and humorous to the deeply dark, in which depths some of the better stories here can be found. Oddly, this spectrum seems to inform the arrangement of the ToC, beginning with several lighter, slighter works and leaving a lot of the best ones to cluster in the last few hundred pages. This seems to be a failure in editing that might mislead the reader as to the nature and quality of the fiction in this long book, which is overall higher than it appears from the first pieces we encounter. I was not particularly impressed as I read the initial few stories and it would have been easy to put the whole volume aside, thus missing some good stuff.
“Curses” by Jim Butcher
Chicago. Part of the author’s Dresden Files series featuring a wizard detective. Harry Dresden gets called in to lift the famous Billy Goat Curse on the Cubs.
Now, Wrigley Field was vast and dark and empty. There was something silently sad about it — acres of seats with no one sitting, a green and beautiful field that no one was playing on, a scoreboard that didn’t have anything on it to read or anyone to read it. If the gods and muses were to come down from Olympus and sculpt unfulfilled potential as a physical form, they wouldn’t get any closer than that hollow house did.
The Dresden series tends to be “lite noir” fantasy detective fiction with a Chicago sensibility, and few things are more Chicago than Cubs fans. There is little of the noir, however, and not a lot of wizardliness as Dresden seeks his answers among the Fair Folk.
“How the Pooka Came to New York City” by Delia Sherman
New York. In 1855, Liam O’Casey disembarks in the New World with his large black dog Madra, who isn’t precisely his, or a dog. Madra wasn’t happy on the voyage, as Pookas don’t like travel over ocean waters.
His eyes ran, his lungs burned, his skin galled him as if he’d been stung by a thousand bees, and the pads of his paws felt as though he’d walked across an unbanked fire. He was sick of his dog shape, sick of this mortal man he was tied to, sick of cramped quarters with no space to run and the stink of death that clung to mortals like a second skin. Most of all, he was sick, almost to dissolution, of the constant presence of cold iron.
But Liam has saved his life, and the Pooka must pay that debt.
Light historical fiction featuring a nice portrayal of Irish immigrant life in old New York. It’s not quite clear why Madra was stuck in dog form for so long and how he was trapped in the first place.
“On the Slide” by Richard Bowes
And again New York. Sean Quinlan’s family were always cops, and he’s an actor who plays cops, currently filming a movie on location there. He’s a retro kind of guy who loves the old cop shows from the days of b&w TV, and he really gets into his role.
What he kept in his mind was a street full of guys and women setting out dressed for work, kids going to school on a spring day over fifty years before. He blocked out what he actually saw, the trucks, the crew, the commissary table, the lights and the crowd of gawkers.
But trouble from his own past is following him too closely, and he needs to get out.
The strong interest here is in the details of the filming scenes. There’s a nice ambiguity set up with the Sliders show, with the fans in costume hanging around the set, hoping the ambiance will be powerful enough to send them back. More than any of the other stories, it reflects the “naked city” theme.
“The Duke of Riverside” by Ellen Kushner
A series that’s a favorite with many readers, when swordsman Richard St Vier meets the aristocratic scholar Alec. At the time, Alec seems to be penniless and possibly crazy, but it turns out he’s the heir to the duchy of Tremontaine, and neither Alec nor the Tremontaines are happy about this. St Vier has to fight off a lot of challenges from Alec’s relatives.
I suppose a lot of readers want to keep reading the same story over and over again. There’s an urban slant of sorts featuring Riverside and its denizens, the first imaginary city in this anthology, but otherwise, you probably already know how it goes.
“Oblivion by Calvin Klein” by Christopher Fowler
London. As her marriage fails, Helen Abbott resorts to shopping therapy.
After shopping, she always wanted a cigarette and a soapy wash, because the entire process was about sex. Buying an inappropriate dress was the equivalent to a thoughtless one-night stand, whereas designer shoes constituted a long-term commitment filled with recrimination and at least one decent orgasm. She hadn’t been penetrated for over eighteen months. At first the dull ache of desire would not go away, but after a while it no longer bothered her. These days her clitoris was located somewhere near Harrods.
She goes spectacularly off the rails when her husband cancels all her credit cards; she hijacks a man her total opposite, an avatar, maybe, of the Green Man. Epiphany results.
A strong psychological portrayal of a woman’s breakdown, with a fantasy element ambiguous at most. Well-done are some finely-honed bitter lines and images of a consumer culture gone beyond rational justification.
“Fairy Gifts” by Patricia Briggs
Butte, Montana. Butte is a city, certainly, but it’s not really a city-city. It’s a mining city, built up from a mining camp, and the real setting here is down in the mines, where wage-slaves of all nations came to work in the late 19th century. Thomas’s father ran an opium den, and when he was displeased with his son, he sold him to a master vampire. Thomas was damned to the darkness of the mines until one day he rescued a young girl of the Fae, who freed him from the darkness in exchange. Now, more than a century later, he has returned to Butte because Margaret needs him again.
Thomas had been raised in Butte, among the Irish, Finns, and all the other races who had come to pull the treasures of the Richest Hill on Earth. He might wear the face of a Chinese man, but he came from a family of scholars and lived among the people here for all of his childhood.
There is nothing particularly urban about this tale, and rather too many supernaturals here – too many and too many different kinds, as if the author is checking them off a list to make sure they all get in. More, certainly, than the story needs. And too much backstory. Almost nothing actually happens in the now. At least the vampire is the right sort, properly damned. We know – we are told but see little of it – that there is a strong tie between Thomas and Margaret, but it is not a romantic tie, for which I am glad. But it’s not clear why it’s taken so long for her message to reach him.
“Picking up the Pieces” by Pat Cadigan
Berlin in 1989, when the wall came down. Jean’s younger sister Quinn has always gone her own way without consideration of others, and now she is convinced that her East German lover Martin, who has gone missing, needs her. Martin had been smuggled out through the wall as a child, but the rest of his family is trapped there. Jean takes the first flight over, because she knows that Quinn is capable of any rash act, and she suspects Martin may not be quite what he seems.
There’s no arguing with what someone knows in their heart or feels in their bones but that’s never stopped me from trying. It was especially counterproductive in this case, because the more I argued against it, the surer she was about Martin and the more determined she became to help him.
The setting is certainly urban, but the emphasis is more on time than place – although the story could have taken place nowhere else. We don’t see much of the fantastic element, not enough to fully understand it, but then, neither do Jean and Quinn, which is rather the point. There are some places, some people, where we just don’t belong.
“Underbridge” by Peter S Beagle
Seattle. Richardson is a gypsy scholar, an untenured resident at the bottom of the academic barrel, hopping from one temp position to the next. When he gets a job in Seattle, he begins to pay visits to the concrete troll under the bridge and has a strange encounter there.
A roupy old voice behind him said, “Don’t you get too close. He’s mean.”
Richardson turned to see a black rainslicker which appeared to be almost entirely inhabited by a huge gray beard. The hood of the slicker was pulled close around the old man’s face, so that only the beard and a pair of bright, bloodshot gray eyes were visible as he squatted on the sidewalk that approached the underpass, with four shopping bags arranged around him.
But as the end of Richardson’s appointment approaches, with no hope of another, he begins to feed the troll.
This bit of dark humor is delightful, and the sense of place is very strong; here’s another one that couldn’t have been set anywhere else. Temp and adjunct faculty in particular should love it.
“Priced to Sell” by Naomi Novik
Manhattan. How non-human clients affect the real estate business.
The elves fought tooth-and-nail with Wall Street wizards over Gramercy Park townhouses and Fifth Avenue co-ops, developers tried to pry brownies out of abandoned industrial buildings in Greenwich Village so they could build loft conversions for rock stars and advertising execs, college students squeezed in four-to-a-1BR with actors and alchemists trying for their big break.
Less a plot than a series of humorous sketches, but they weave together neatly. In a way, it’s like a detective story, the search for the right clients for the right properties. A very strong link to the setting; real estate in Manhattan is like nowhere else.
“The Bricks of Gelecek” by Matthew Kressel
A second imaginary setting. The narrator is a desert being whose kind destroys cities and other human establishments with a touch. He calls himself “dissolution”.
Always in fours we came to your cities. The sand blew us into flesh, and we walked like men through your iron gates and your tented marketplaces. Dust fell from our fingertips, our feet. The dust of decay, of eons, of ash. We touched your fruits and your doorposts. We pat the heads of your children and shook the calloused hands of your husbands. You smiled at us.
One day the narrator hears a young girl’s voice singing a song and follows it to Gelecek. She is an apprentice builder, and her songs bring the memories of dead cities back to life. He becomes obsessed.
Lovely and melancholy fantasy, very different from the others in this collection and quite a bit more to my taste, yet I have to think it doesn’t really belong here. It is less about a particular city than a particular person, and about cities in general as a particularly human creation. “I began to see these cities not as a thousand separate entities, but the organs of a much larger creature whose severed limbs always grew back.” Nice, but for another anthology.
“Weston Walks” by Kit Reed
More New York. Weston lost his parents at age four, and as soon as he was able, he built for himself a perfect and private place into which no one was invited. He did not invite Wings Germaine into his life, but she comes anyway, by means he becomes determined to discover, particularly when she begins taking his treasures away with her.
She’ll have to pack up her stuff and move into his handsome house and settle down in his daytime life because he is probably in love with her. Then he’ll have every beautiful thing that he cares about secured in the last safe place.
The stark opposition of Weston’s controlled life and the exquisite museum of his home with the world of the tunnels beneath Central Park is a well-wrought illustration of New York, a world where extreme wealth co-exists with lost souls sleeping on grates and under bridges – and in homes worth millions, filled with treasures.
“The Projected Girl” by Lavie Tidhar
Haifa. For Danny’s tenth birthday, his Uncle Arik gives him a magic set. At his Bar Mitzvah, he receives a pile of cash, with which he visits his favorite used bookstores and finds a magician’s notebook from the 1940s, thus discovering an old mystery, which Danny actually likes better than magic. He becomes determined to find out what happened to the magician’s missing assistant, even at the great personal peril involved in visiting his elderly aunt.
Great aunt Zsuzsi had a voice thickened by cigarettes; she liked to pinch cheeks; she had a blue number tattooed on her arm; and she could remember everything you’d ever done, from the time you were three years old and peed your pants at cousin Ofer’s bar-mitzvah onwards. She had been an archivist for the harbour authorities, and she had lived in the city for decades, in a small, third-story flat in the Stella Maris neighbourhood, a family invitation to which caused children to develop immediate and lasting symptoms of flu, chicken pox, mumps, or measles, depending on the season and the child’s knowledge of medical matters.
Like several of these stories, the sense of place is strongly historical. To the tale of past events, the author has tied his own family’s history, and it is as a story of family, funny and sad at the same time, that it has great appeal, as well as a story of a boy growing up. The author throws in a final twist that makes the fantasy element ambiguous, but there is still sufficient reason to believe it could actually have been a miracle.
“The Way Station” by Nathan Ballingrud
New Orleans. Beltrane was already down and out and fucked up when he lived there, but after Katrina, when he comes to Florida to try to find his daughter, he discovers that he’s somehow brought the ghost of his city along with him.
He hikes the shirt up to his shoulders and discovers a large square hole in the center of his chest. The smell of bread blows from it like a wind. The edges are sharp and clean, not like a wound at all. Tentatively, he probes it with his fingers: they come away damp, and when he brings them to his nose they have the ripe, deliquescent odor of river water.
There are some cities that just naturally seem to spawn stories, but lately the stories set here tend to be stuck in one place – the storm and the flood. Beltrane’s New Orleans is dead and gone, but we see it warped through his memories; it’s the city of the destitute, drink and drugs and camping out in a smelly derelict cab. The hole in Beltrane is a striking image, as are his hallucinatory visions. The author holds out hope for him; I couldn’t be that optimistic.
“Guns for the Dead” by Melissa Marr
Dead city. Frankie Lee finds himself there and goes looking for a job, finds himself in the middle of a local jurisdictional dispute. Alicia the gun dealer conducts a hard job interview.
She stood and looked down at him. His blood was leaking all over her floorboards. And that’s why we don’t have carpet. She sighed. Sometimes, she had misplaced urges for finery that had no place in the shop. Maybe if it was a dark carpet.
An entertaining tale with some interesting views on the afterlife and strong characters, although I’m not buying it that Alicia is so uncertain of the ultimate rules after all the time she’s been around. But the setting, while a neat one, is not exactly a city, and I wouldn’t really call this one an urban fantasy. It seems a bit out of place.
“And Go Like This” by John Crowley
And more New York again. An oddity, realizing a fancy, or even a whimsy, of Buckminster Fuller, which stands as the story’s epigraph:
There is room enough indoors in New York City for the whole 1963 world’s population to enter, with room enough inside for all hands to dance the twist in average nightclub proximity.
Crowley doesn’t go into much of the how and especially the why of this experiment. What we have here seems a lot like a 1963 newsreel [they still existed then] showing an overview of the mass movement of the world’s population and then a brief glimpse at one couple who made the migration.
“Noble Rot” by Holly Black
Asbury Park. Agatha is working a crappy job at a Korean takeout place and trying to escape what she is. The former resort is a good place for her as it decays.
After those days faded, the city was at least a place that turned out rock stars — South Side Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Springsteen, Bon Jovi, Colin Lainhart — all of them playing The Stone Pony before going on to take over the world. Now, Colin Lainhart is dying in a cavernous loft and speculation about a marauding pack of corpse-eating dogs are the only thing worth putting on the front page.
She befriends Lainhart, to whom she delivers lo mein and fried rice, until one day he discovers her secret.
I suppose I’d have to call this one horror; the gross-out factor is pretty high, but it isn’t actually scary. In fact, it’s a story of friendship and maybe, possibly, love. For once, I don’t want to expose the secret here, although the author makes it open pretty early.
“Daddy Long Legs of the Evening” by Jeffry Ford
Set in an imaginary dystopia, a very dark fantasy. A spider crawled into a boy’s ear and thence to his brain, transforming him into a spidery creature who preys on humans. Now he has come to Grindly to feed on its remaining inhabitants, who can’t seem to escape the dying city.
His last kill of the previous night had been Tharshmon the watch maker, a man made old by lack of work and self-respect. No one any longer cared to know the time in Grindly.
Disturbing images. There’s as much horror here as lover of nightmares could ever desire, but at its heart this one is a fable. It’s also the only imaginary city in this collection that really works as urban fantasy. The cityness of Grindly, its decline and despair, is central to the story.
“The Skinny Girl” by Lucius Shepard
Mexico City. Hugo Lis is a news photographer who specializes in the victims of violent death – the “red news.” This is a city where Death is worshiped – a saint if not a goddess – although Hugo himself has never been such a believer.
“Death has become so prominent a character in our lives, we’ve transformed her into a movie star,” he would typically say, leading his interviewer among the stalls that transformed many of Tepito’s streets into crowded pedestrian aisles, pointing out the various representations of Santa Muerte available among fraudulent Swiss watches and knock-offs of designer clothing–statuettes and paintings of robed skeletal figures juxtaposed with T-shirts that depicted her as an emaciated yet beautiful young girl.
One day, she sends for him. Hugo’s skepticism is challenged.
Macabre fantastic with a strong eroticism. Perhaps the most disturbing story here. Another one that it’s hard to imagine placed in any other city.
“The Colliers’ Venus (1893)” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Cherry Creek, Colorado [which I take to be an alternate early version of Denver]. Another story set in the mines, where paleontologist Jeremiah Ogilvy learns that there are mysterious happenings down in Shaft Seven. Miners are finding living creatures inside lumps of rock, creatures that die after the nodules are cracked open. But what has come out of the rock now is apparently a woman, and deadly; two men have been killed. The professor is skeptical, but his dreams are full of visions:
…the brick and mortar of the Gallery walls has dissolved utterly away, revealing the trunks of mighty scale trees and innumerable scouring rushes tall as California redwoods. Here is a dark Carboniferous forest, the likes of which has not taken root since the Mary Gray vein at the bottom of Shaft Seven was only slime and rotting detritus. And below these alien boughs, a menagerie of primæval beings has gathered to peer out across the aeons. So, it is not merely a hole knocked in his wall, but a hole bored through the very fabric of time.
Part of the story wants to say it’s something mystical, something on the order of god or demon or primordial power. But the power herself calls herself time – geological time, in the span of which, humanity is insignificant. As a paleontologist, Ogilvy is uniquely prepared, in this day, to comprehend this truth. But it proves to be more than he can comprehend fully, suggesting that there is after all something of the mystical in the geological, or at least the inexplicable. Of all the stories that rest on the past of a place, here is the ultimate, but it is about the past, not the place.
“King Pole, Gallows Pole, Bottle Tree” by Elizabeth Bear
Las Vegas. Part of a series featuring one-eyed Jackie, the [corporeal] spirit of Las Vegas, “guardian of the Sin City and all her fallen angels.” And its ghosts. They want him to do something bout the old woman catching ghosts in a bottle tree. And drinking them.
A crystalline clinking wasn’t only from the chimes. Around the side, another nearly-dead elm swayed in the breeze. Its fingerling branches had been broken off blunt, and onto each stick was thrust a colored bottle — gold, violet, emerald, Ty Nant ruby, Maltine amber, Ayers cobalt blue. They tinkled as the tree moved, and I wondered how they managed not to smash in anything like a real wind.
The old woman is drinking ghost memories because someone is stealing her own. Turns out he’s the most powerful man in Las Vegas, and now he’s stealing Jackie’s memories to keep him from remembering who he is. Given that Jackie is the memory of Las Vegas and its protector, that’s powerful mojo.
Vegas is another of the world’s well-storied cities [was the author making an allusion by naming her villain Powers?], and One-eyed Jackie is a strong archetype for it, a sort of avatar of Odin. I’d still like to know how Powers got the power to overwhelm him so rapidly and thoroughly.