Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early March

Previewing an anthology along with the usual first-of-the-month ezines. The good story award goes to the overt horror of Norman Partridge’s “Vampire Lake” from the Subterranean anthology.


Publications Reviewed


Subterranean: Tales of Dark Fantasy 2, edited by William Schafer

As the title clearly states, this is the second volume in a series from this prestigious small press, to be published this spring. It is entirely fiction, eleven stories in 292 pages with no editorial matter. Genre readers, especially those already familiar with the publisher, should recognize the star lineup of authors.

The editor has chosen stories across a broad fantasy landscape, from science fiction to contemporary to historical to secondary-world. Although there are no elves or dragons, there are werewolves and vampires. For the most part, these tales are light dark fantasy, with even a humorous tone in some cases, but they encompass both the subtle and the overwhelming. This is mostly fantasy for grownups, for readers who appreciate the varieties of narrative voice, the play of language and the unexpected twist of plot, but most of all the full range of the genre.

“Wolverton Station” by Joe Hill

Saunders is a corporate hatchet man, a ruthless agent of a ruthless company with a business plan based on ruining small Mom and Pop operations. Accordingly, he is used to seeing all kinds of protesters waiting for him, and he assumes at first that the wolf on the platform of Wolverton Station is yet another, a man in a wolf suit –

a wolf six feet tall with a scally cap tucked between his bristly, graying ears. The wolf stood on his hind legs, wore a trench coat, and held a briefcase in one paw.

Saunders is wrong, as he realizes when he sees the wolf yobbos in coach class chowing down on a woman’s fresh liver.

Despite the single scene of gore and entrails, this is a piece with a punchline, and the kind of nightmarishly surreal atmosphere that leaves readers not quite certain whether Saunders is hallucinating or has actually stepped through the floating door into some Twilight Zone abattoir. But what matters is that Saunders has been dealt a hand of cosmic justice. Short and sharp, to the tune of Werewolves of London.

“The Passion of Mother Vajpai” by Jay Lake and Shannon Page

Set in the city of Kalimpuri from Lake’s novel Green, in which these authors have placed other short works. Readers familiar with the milieu should recognize the Lily Blades, the female guild of ninja-like assassin-enforcers in which Shayla is a senior aspirant, almost ready for her final test. In the meantime, she is sexually obsessed with a girl she has only seen through a window. But when the time comes for her test, she is ordered to infiltrate a banquet given by the father of that girl and deliver a message to him. The Mothers of the Lily Blades know everything.

This is a character study of a young woman adept in the skills of death yet so lacking in personal self-confidence that she can’t speak without stammering to her beloved.

Not yet, prayed Shayla. Please, let me have one more hour with her. I will never be so beautiful again, and neither will any woman I love.

This is less a work of erotica than, as the title states, of passion. Passion, longing and desire saturate the story like the humidity of the Kalimpuri night. The setting suffices to make it fantasy, but not, however, to make it dark.

“Chivalrous” by Kelley Armstrong

Reese is a young werewolf at university in Melbourne, the son of a family outlawed by the Australian Pack. He rescues a young woman from a couple of rapists and falls in love with her before she reveals that she is the daughter of the Pack’s Alpha werewolf, sent by her father to betray Reese. Reese’s instincts are to protect Daniella, but he also has to safeguard his parents from the deadly retaliation of the Pack.

This is the one story in the anthology not to my taste. Specifically, it is not grownup fiction but rather what is now called “urban fantasy,” and strongly shows its roots in gaming fiction with its obsession with rules and hierarchies. [This seems to be common in the subgenre.] Modeling the werewolf pack on the behavior of real wolves may be a good idea in theory, but I find it not credibly done here. The story ignores the biological differences between the species that make the pack as described unsustainable. Nor does it account for the large number of non-pack wolves in a territory supposedly so dominated by the pack. Moreover, Australia is far, far too large an area for a single pack to dominate in the manner of a species that marks its territory by scent. I’m also not real happy with a piece that breaks off as this one does, with the resolution to be delivered in a sequel. Readers familiar with the author’s other work featuring the character might be more interested.

“Smelling Danger: A Black Company Story” by Glen Cook

It’s unlikely that many readers of this anthology will be unfamiliar with this long-running series, and the story assumes that familiarity, so that newcomers may find themselves lost in the beginning. The rest of us, however, will immediately recognize the usual narrator, Croaker, annalist of this mercenary company and also its medic. Croaker senses something off about two of the company’s reprehensible wizards and fears they might have fallen under the malign influences of a sorcerous enemy known as the Limper – lots of references from previous episodes in the series. Now something is going on, but no one will let Croaker in on the secret.

The longer this goes on, and the longer the Lady holds off dropping us in the shit, the more I’m sure the big ugly is crawling up behind me. I’m seeing things out of the corners of my eyes.

The Black Company stories can sometimes be very dark; there is serious evil going on in its endless wars. Yet there is generally a light tone in Croaker’s narrative voice, and this episode adds to it with an epidemic of itchy purple fungus, infected wizards stuffed into pickle barrels, and the usual superstitious paranoia of soldiers, as well as twisted plots, schemes and double-crosses. An entertaining read.

“The Dappled Thing” by William Browning Spencer

We know we are in steampunk country when we join an expedition in search of the survivors of a crashed zeppelin, including the granddaughter of a wealthy but eccentric lord. The group is led by the aging adventurer Sir Bertram Rudge, and Her Glory of Empire, their conveyance, is no mere zeppelin but a marvelous device capable of crossing land and water as well as air. The scene is an anonymous steamy jungle, very much unlike Rudge’s green England, full of strange tribes and creatures.

Looking forward, he saw a tiny pale frog. He moved his hand slowly over it — with no thought except to test his reflexes — and snatched it. He slowly uncurled his fingers and looked at the pop-eyed creature. It was walnut-sized, its skin transparent so that you could see the organs within. Turning the creature toward the light, Rudge could see its tiny beating heart, the twist of its intestines (like a water-drowned worm), and its fragile green bones.

At last, with little foreboding or foreshadowing, the expedition encounters the entity that makes this fantasy dark. Rudge, at the end, knows he can not tell himself that all is well, even with his original mission accomplished.

The real interest here is in the prose, the description of the rain forest and its creatures. The title is taken from the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, one that praises the wonders of creation. Intriguingly, it is contrasted with another bit of verse that is clearly an alternate, distorted version of Wordsworth’s “Daffodils,” just as the type of natural beauty described by Hopkins is distorted by the presence in the jungle of a thing that shouldn’t be, at least on Earth. These elements make something special of what would otherwise be a rather standard steampunk horror tale.

“Not Last Night but the Night Before” by Steven R Boyett

One day Michael wakes to find his death sitting on the couch, reading the Sunday paper. He drinks Michael’s coffee. He comes to work with him. He never speaks.

He sat on the gray carpet near Michael’s desk and read a Dan Brown novel like some solemn child accustomed to being left alone to entertain itself. Michael tried to ignore him but it wasn’t easy. Having his death so close at hand made it hard to get any real work done.

His presence also doesn’t help Michael’s love life. And it only gets worse when he begins to see other people’s deaths, following them, riding along in their cars. Then he sees what happens when someone dies.

There is light humor in the narrative, but overall it is a low-key and thoughtful look at the ultimate mystery, which turns out to be not as dark as we might suppose.

“Hydraguros” by Caitlín R Kiernan

Not much lightness here, nor a lot of clarity. The narrator is a flunky for a criminal organization, the sort of guy who delivers suitcases full of illicit substances or cash. It is on one such trip that he first sees “the silver,” as he calls it.

But then the pretty woman turns her head to the left, towards the front of the car, and quicksilver trickles from her left nostril and spatters her jeans. If she felt it – if she’s in any way aware of this strange excrescence – she shows no sign that she felt it. She doesn’t wipe her nose, or look down at her pants. If anyone else saw what I saw, they’re busy pretending like they didn’t.

He knows it’s not actually mercury but he doesn’t know what else to call it, and it’s not the only time he sees the phenomenon; other people seem to notice it, too, including his lover. And it seems to be alive. And maybe someone saw the stuff in some vials in the suitcases that he and his colleagues deliver, and maybe his nightmare knows something when it shows him a capsule fallen from space. But then, he’s been strung out a lot on drugs, and sleeplessness can make you paranoid, and mercury was once said to drive people insane.

The author throws a lot of hints into this science fiction mix, a lot of ambiguity, and of course we know that we can’t take a dream literally. Yet the sense that something very bad is happening lays a heavy pall over the scene, and we don’t need to know the exact reason to appreciate what the narrator’s lover tell him in the dream: “You think ignorance is some kind of virtue, and none of the evil shit you do for your taskmasters is ever coming back to haunt you.”


“The Parthenopean Scalpel” by Bruce Sterling

Apparently this one was published previously in Europe*, but I’ve decided it’s too neat to overlook, and besides, some foolish reviewer has called it “steampunk,” which it certainly is not. It is historical fiction, a story of the Risorgimento, the Italian nationalist movement of the 19th century. The eponymous narrator, whom we know only by this nom de guerre, is a revolutionary assassin. As a wanted man, he takes refuge with a nationalist aristocrat and begins an affair with the count’s sisters, who share a single body below the neck, while he waits for an appropriate target for his blade. He fails to kill his target in a duel, but honor is satisfied. It seems rather a wonder, if his career is considered representative of the movement, that the Italian state was ever successfully created. But the ending casts a dark foreshadow, suggesting more momentous assassinations, “vast commotions,” later to come.

It is a strange and wonderful tale, but most of what is fantastic in it only seems to be so from the contemporary point of view; in fact, this is history. Only the presence of a character known as the Transylvanian** pushes it over the line into fantasy, as it seems unlikely that any mortal could walk away from a duel after being twice transfixed by his opponent’s blade. But this is only one incident, and it seems metaphorical. What is important here is the discourse, the revelation of the minds and thoughts of these figures.

“But you, my dear friend,” — (it was the first time he had called me that) — “you are a terrorist. Men like you are in critically short supply, for you can bring upon this world the ‘vast commotions’ prophesied by your visionaries. So I cannot release you to die in the streets of the Roman Republic with the scum of Europe. No. Men like ourselves are sternly bound to a higher purpose!”

As I write this, the fires of revolution are breaking out across nations not very distant from the narrator’s native Naples, events which have inspired many pundits to speak of “another 1848.” It seems that in all ages people are inspired to risk death for their own visions of freedom and independence, but this story reminds us that the human element is unique. History does not simply repeat.

(*) As O Bisturi Napolitano. I like the title in English much better.
(**) Perhaps Radetsky, although he had already been named in the text.

“A Pulp Called Joe” by David Prill

A fanciful story of a town so totally dominated by its paper mill that the population gave its blood in place of an unobtainable dye, and the wood pulp fumes infiltrated their bodies.

Part of you became wood, the processed pulp, the paper. As you were in the paper, the paper was in you.

However, class differences were only exaggerated by this metamorphosis, as common workers like Joe were rough pulp, while those with greater means could transform their fibers into a fine, smooth surface. Thus the high grade Penelope Vellum became the object of Joe’s love, although he never believed himself good enough to deserve her.

An unusual tale of class consciousness and unrequited love, more depressing than dark.

“Vampire Lake” by Norman Partridge

This is it. In many anthologies there is a standout story, one that readers will always recall when the book comes to mind. It is the longest, darkest tale in the book, a dark dark fantasy in the Western mode. A stranger comes into town, the kind of gunslinger who makes prudent men leave a saloon as soon as he enters, a man we know only as “the bounty killer.” He comes dragging a prisoner in chains, in search of a boy who tells a story that no one else believes, a boy kept caged out back of the saloon. This is the narrator, who was dragged by vampires to their hell underground, escaped, then was captured by Apaches who burned off half his face. The bounty killer wants him as a guide, to lead him back down into that hell where the vampire queen waits in the middle of a black lake infested with albino gators who feed on the remains of the vampires’ dead.

The Western horror subgenre not only tolerates but encourages hyperbole and highly-colored language; it is not a literature of subtlety or nuance.

It came out of its holster rattler-quick and sprayed Rumson’s head across the barroom wall. In the brief moment after the bullet did its work, what was left of Rumson’s skull looked like a diseased egg dropped by one sick chicken. By the time that bloody hunk of gristle hit the floor, the bounty killer’s black rattler of a pistol was back in its holster.

The vampires, happily, entirely lack the spirit of romance. They are ghoulish and foul, as vampires should be, and their queen a ravenous spider. The bounty killer turns out to be her perfect match. There is more than spatter here, there is hemorrhage. There is horror.


“A Room with a View” by K J Parker

This one has the nuance and subtlety, beginning with the title. We have a grownup version of the school for wizards, the Studium, in which certain kinds of magic are done by moving among mentally-constructed rooms, in some of which there are windows with a view of the object of the spell. Manuo, while officially Master Chrysodorus Alexicacus, is in reality a failure, usually assigned the sort of tedious tasks normally taken by low-grade journeymen. He is now supposed to mentor a female student who has been unable to master the technique of rooms. Too late, he realizes he has been set up.

A lot of neat stuff to like here, such as the Greekish names of the spells: epoiesen noon, choris anthropou, ouden menei; usually these are faux Latin. The narrative voice is engaging in a negative tone; Manuo is a curmudgeon.

Mentoring is taking some pushy young kid under your wing for a fortnight, knowing that once the ordeal’s over, he’s going on somewhere better and you’re stuck here. That makes it so much worse, somehow. Besides, I don’t like young people. I didn’t like them when I was one, and I like them even less now I’ve grown out of it.

And finally there is a puzzle to solve, a plot to unravel, a subtle mystery. Quite satisfactory.


Intergalactic Medicine Show #21, February 2011

A mix of science fiction and fantasy, rather on the sentimental side. A particularly good story by Cat Rambo, who seems to be appearing everywhere this year.

“Brutal Interlude” by Wayne Wightman

When reality shows go worse. The shy Miss Noreen Brown is selected against her will to be a subject of ICU!, in which every moment of her existence, no matter how personal, will be broadcast worldwide.

Since it was quasi-governmentally-run and provided immense revenue, everyone between sixteen and sixty was considered subject to it, in return for lower taxes, with no exceptions for the wealthy, the imbecilic, the delicate, or the dying.

Noreen, unable to endure the situation, transforms herself into a vengeful persona called Sylvia Romilar. Her only remaining connection to her previous reality is Walter Roscoe, a shy man who ran the shop across the street from Noreen’s tea shop before she was chosen.

This “If This Goes On” scenario is tragic because the intervention occurs at exactly the moment that Noreen and Walter could have begun a life of normal happiness together. Even more than the phenomenon of intrusive reality shows, it is a cautionary tale about the influence of “celebrities” who become famous for being famous.

“The Devil’s Rematch” by Spencer Ellsworth

Fifty years ago, Pastor Tucker came into Wadesville and threw the devil out. Now he’s back for a rematch. Best two out of three. But the pastor is now longer the muscular young preacher who once put a full nelson on Old Scratch. He needs a sub, and the biggest, best wrestler in town is Elmer Thornton. But Elmer hasn’t had a good word for white folks since his father was lynched, and he doesn’t see any reason to help Wadesville now, when they never helped him or his father. Mayor Hal Fletcher knows he has to confront the good ol’ boys, both for Elmer’s sake and the sake of righteousness. But righteousness isn’t easy when it conflicts with deep old prejudice.

A mix of humor and social commentary here, rather than the tall tale it starts out to be. Usually, in this kind of story, the devil comes out on the short side of the deal. This time, he seems to win for losing.

“Go Home, And Be With Your Families” by Steven R Stewart

Herb is an emotional coward who has shut off contact with people who depend on him – first his [ex] wife, then his daughter, now starting on his fiancée. He drinks a lot.

Herb’s finger hovered over the call button for a full minute. It felt like there was a wall of steel between his finger and the screen of his phone. How could he offer her support, or help, or advice? He would have to apologize for so many things, wade through a laundry list of grievances before even getting to “hello.”

Herb has had a stroke of incomparable luck. SETI has received broadcasts from a race of alien beings whose dramas become the hot thing in broadcasting, and Herb is chosen to voice the roles of the most popular of them, Mato. Then comes the crisis and epiphany.

A tearjerker. The author skillfully using Herb’s phone to portray his emotional paralysis, and the final scenes of the aliens are tragic. But the entire situation is clichéd and too manipulative to be genuinely heartwarming.

“Ratoncito’s Last Tooth” by Mike Hill

Ratoncito [why he was given this inauspicious name is a mystery] was born with extraordinary strength, far beyond that of most grown men when he was only a child.

His mother always told him that he was descended from Samson of the Bible, of the Tribe of Dan, and made him promise that he would not become a drinker like his father, and to always use his strength to help his family, being careful never to hurt another.

And so he did.

A fable, with overtones of a Tall Tale.

“A Frame of Mother-of-Pearl” by Cat Rambo

As Hattie lifted the dolphin-shaped latch and reached inside to take out a Spanish dancing doll, a spark stung soft skin between thumb and forefinger. A briery spell, full of ginger and bite.

She recoiled. Nursing her hand, she searched the cabinet with her eyes. A frame pebbled with mother-of-pearl was missing. She knelt in a rustle of skirts to look closer, careful not to touch the doors.

Hattie is a young witch whose lover was lost several years ago at sea. The missing picture frame held her only picture of him. Hattie is determined to retrieve it and to find who is behind the hostile magic that took it from her and left the scorpion.

Hattie’s magical quest follows a lot of the rules of a fairy tale: No meeting is accidental. No gift will go unused. There are also ghosts and mermaids and nested plots – an artful and original arrangement, with a satisfactory ending, if a somewhat melancholy one.


“Breakout” by Edmund R Schubert

Brian Byrd is an underemployed astronomer with an imprisoning wife, who escapes once a week to teach at a nearby prison. Driving there, he is astonished to see that the star Vega seems to be missing from the sky. But the growing blackness turns out to be the answer to all his dreams.

There’s a good story at the heart of this one, but it’s buried under annoyances, beginning with the first sentence, which is a misleading lie. Brian’s wife is much too evil to be credible. The meaningful characters, except for Brian, barely have a chance to speak a word.


Clarkesworld #54, March 2011

Stories told by people who are Different.

“The Book of Phoenix (Excerpted from the Great Book)” by Nnedi Okorafor

Phoenix is an experiment, one of many in a large experimental facility. As the story begins, she realizes that she and her fellow inmates are prisoners when her only friend among the commits suicide. She decides to escape.

There is, as far as I know, no Great Book, although there might be some other work connected to this one. Or else it is a device used by the author, along with the portentous introduction, to suggest the magnitude of the changes unleashed on the world by the release of the experiments, who bear a great likeness to conventional superheroes. Readers can not be totally sure that this facility makes no sense, because all we know is from Phoenix’s point of view, which can make no sense of it. Yet all the evidence suggests that we can’t take the place seriously. Phoenix, for example, was designed as a weapon, yet her creators seem to have made scant provision for containing and directing her capacities. Security is extremely lax; one experiment has escaped control and roams the tower, walking through the walls. And the experiments seem to be random, with no system or controls.

In Tower 7, there was “transformative” genetic engineering, the in-vitro fertilization of organic robots, “rejuvenation” surgery on the ancient near-dead, the creation of weaponized weeds, the insertion and attaching of both mechanical and cybernetic parts to human bodies.

It also doesn’t speak well for Phoenix’s discernment, who after reading as many thousands of books as she claims, doesn’t realize the significance of her name.

“Perfect Lies” by Gwendolyn Clare

Nora’s parents once thought she was born a sociopath.

I hardly ever cried as a baby, and I never once smiled. It almost would have been a relief, I think, if I’d turned out to be severely mentally retarded. But as it was, I developed more or less normally, except that I utterly failed to express emotional responses or recognize them in others. My parents went through an endless stream of baffled child psychologists, all the while waiting for the tortured animal carcasses to start showing up.

As it turned out, her lack of natural facial expressions makes her effective at telling lies, while her studies made her adept at reading the facial expressions of others. Naturally, she was recruited by the UN’s diplomatic corps. Now she has been assigned to negotiate a trade agreement with the Mask People, aliens whose communication is almost entirely in facial expression. And her boss wants her to lie.

An interesting premise. Nora’s moments of cynical humor make the narration entertaining.


Redstone Science Fiction #10, March 2011

A science fiction story and a story about science fiction.

“The Hubbard Continuum” by Lavie Tidhar

Satire. The narrator is a time-traveler gone back in time to change all future history by preventing L Ron Hubbard from publishing his article on Dianetics in the May 1950 issue of Astounding. His tool: a better writer.

I looked into his eyes, growing serious. ‘Isaac is a very talented writer,’ I said. Campbell nodded mildly and said he thought so, too. We had moved away from Asimov (he was talking to Nelson S. Bond) and I said, ‘he will come to you soon with an important story. The most important story of his career, and yours. When the time comes, I hope you remember that, and accept the story.’

A skiffy in-joke, full of ancient fannish references. Ancient fans should love it.

“First Light” by Patrick Lundrigan

Human expedition in search of the advanced technology of an extinct race called tree huggers because of their plant-based science. This one begins with a hull breach, that old skiffy standard for generating reader excitement. But in fact, the breach has little to do with the story, and the ship soon settles back into tedium. The crew members have lots of time for discussion, which serves more as infodump than characterization.

“Do you know how dark matter works?  How it interacts with normal space time?  You know enough. But with first light, you can figure out how it works exactly. Change all the theorems to laws.”

Pretty dull stuff.


Fantasy Magazine, February 28, 2011

One last story on the last day of last month.

“The Celebrated Carousel of the Margravine of Blois” by Megan Arkenberg

Saint-Pierre is a ghosthunter employed by the lady Porphyrogene to find the ghost she believes is haunting the home she used to share with her lover, the Margravine of Blois. The Margravine was a notable clockmaker, and the house is filled with her creations, one of which in particular keeps Saint-Pierre awake at night. Of it, she wrote:

It is the most populous of the house’s clocks, with over fifty individual automata, and the only one set to music — the late Évariste of Blois’s “Waltz for Dead Lover.” The key figures are as follows: the skeleton dancers, one couple for every hour; Death with his mask and violin; the Bride, who emerges at midnight with a shower of miniature rose petals; and Évariste, who leads each reprisal of the waltz from his perch at the stroke of twelve.

Her crowning achievement, however, was the carousel, clockwork on a life-sized scale. Its animals were all automata, extremely self-willed and particular about whom they would allow to ride them. As Saint-Pierre learns, it no longer functions. But he also discovers that all the Margravine’s automatons are, one by one, dying.

Clockwork fantasy is usually identified these days with steampunk, but I have decided it is better defined as a subset of Fantasy of Manners. Certainly this piece is, with character names like Antoine Aristide de Saint-Pierre and Porphyrogene. It is at the same time alternate history, a love story, though the lovers are dead, a ghost story, though no ghosts materialize, and a mystery: why is Porphyrogene trying to find a ghost who isn’t there? But the overwhelming impression that readers will take from it is the mannered language and setting, more than the clockworks.


GigaNotoSaurus, March 2011

The month’s story is relatively short.

“Hero-Mother” by Vylar Kaftan

The Kurish species evolved from treecats to take an upright posture, but the consequence was difficulty in mating. In the past, so many females had died that now only the strongest are chosen to bear cubs. Duv is determined to have a cub, despite the pain, and her mate Keloc wants to give her whatever she wants, but he fears for her.

This one is effective as a love story. The Kurish are scent-oriented, and it is sad that, after mating, Keloc can no longer recognize his mate; her scent has altered. But the reproductive biology is not so credible. The author makes the point several times how easily the treecats mate. I just don’t believe the Kurish could have evolved at all as described. I see no reproductive advantage in it, and reproductive advantage is how evolution works. The Kurish have the right idea, but the species shouldn’t exist in the first place.


Lois Tilton is reading original short SF and fantasy fiction. Editors can send electronic files of magazines and original anthologies to: loist a*t sff.net

For print materials, please query me by email for the address.

For an index of Magazine Issue reviews posted on Locus Online, including Lois Tilton’s, see Index to Magazine Reviews.

2 thoughts on “Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early March

  • March 4, 2011 at 6:47 pm

    Thank you for the intelligent view of “Brutal Interlude.” I like the quote.

  • March 5, 2011 at 6:56 am

    You could call that one a horror story.


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