Lois Tilton reviews Short Fiction, early September
Most of the stories from print publications again this time: two new digests, a vampire anthology with few actual vampires, and a couple of first-of-the-month ezines. The Good Story award goes to Kij Johnson’s novella in Asimov’s.
- Asimov’s, October/November 2011
- Analog, November 2011
- Blood and Other Cravings, edited by Ellen Datlow
- Clarkesworld, September 2011
- GigaNotoSaurus, September 2011
Asimov’s, October/November 2011
This time, the double issue offers two novellas, mostly science fiction, although there are a couple of nice short pieces of fantasy, as well. A good issue.
“Stealth” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Another installment in the author’s long-running “Wreck” series. Here is our protagonist Squishy, supervising an emergency evacuation of a station doing research on stealth technology: shoving the evacuees so hard they stumble and fall, delaying her own departure so long she almost doesn’t make it to her ship, taking off so fast the ship almost hits the bay doors before they are fully opened. This is the character the author expects us to sympathize with. But constant readers of this series are already quite familiar with her, and the author seems to expect this prior sympathy to carry over to the present chapter.
It’s one of those stories where the author flips back and forth between present and past, as we learn, or are reminded, of her involvement with the ancient technology known by those who really understand it as the anacapa drive, which has left her soaked in guilt for all the deaths incurred in the research. No one in the Empire understands the tech and no one can control it, and every attempt always ends in disaster, but the Empire, lusting for power, won’t put a stop to it. Readers familiar with the character from previous stories probably suspect what she’s doing on the research station where we find her during the “Now” sections. Others are soon let in on her secret. She has laid her plans very carefully, but the thing she hadn’t counted on was the presence of her ex-husband Quint, who has never stopped trying to look after her. Which is exactly what she has never wanted, and especially now. But most of the story is just an extended flashback, recapitulating what many readers will have already known while the story strikes a single, constantly repeated note: people have died; the protagonist has a lot of angst that people have died; she has to stop the deaths. There’s a whole lot of words here, just for that. This is a mine that the author has gone to too often, and the seam of story ore is playing out.
“The Man Who Bridged the Mist” by Kij Johnson
The Empire is split in half by the river of mist, and plans are now underway to erect bridges to cross it, to unify the land. Kit is the architect who has come from the capital to Nearside/Farside to take over the project.
The mist streams he had bridged had not prepared him for anything like this. Those were tidy little flows, more like fog collection in hollows than this. From their angle, the river no longer seemed a smooth flow of creamy whiteness, nor even gently heaped clouds. The mist forced itself into hillocks and hollows, tight slopes perhaps twenty feet high that folded into one another. It had a surface, but it was irregular, cracked in places, or translucent in others. The surface didn’t seem as clearly defined as that between water and air.
As is customary in the Empire, Kit began to learn his craft from his parents, but he also learned that it isn’t just stone or steel that makes a structure, it’s people. Kit becomes closer to the people he works with on this project than he ever has before and begins for the first time to regret that he will have to leave and move on to another job.
The title is quite apt. The story is primarily about the man; Kit and his bridge change the world of Nearside and Farside, and he is changed as well. It is also, however, about the work of building the bridge. If this were a story about a construction project in space, readers would automatically see it as hard SF. Here, although the setting is obviously an alien world, the difference factor is less obvious. There is the hazardous mist and there are the fish-not-fish that dwell in it; the cables made from fish skin are an important innovation of the construction. Otherwise, however, it seems essentially to be a world like our own with a technology level equivalent to our 19th century. Despite the shortage of skiffy elements, the details of engineering the bridge are fascinating and clearly portrayed.(*) In a clichéd hard-sf construction story, such as we have seen too many times, the author will introduce artificial plot tension of some sort – a catastrophic failure, an officious bureaucracy – that the protagonist will prove himself by overcoming. None of that here. Kit comes to bridge the mist, and his bridge is built, accidents and bureaucrats notwithstanding. The real story is in the way this alters the people who do it.
(*) The details are so clearly executed that readers can hardly fail to notice that the cover does not accurately illustrate a suspension bridge or the sort of boats that ply the story’s river. This may make some of them irritable.
“The Outside Event” by Kit Reed
Humor. Cynnie gets chosen over many others, including her lover, to spend three expense-paid months competing in a contest at a writers colony. Right off, there are subtle signs that this may not be a Good Thing.
“You keep to the path when you go to your individual studios in the woods and you stay there until the dinner bell. Don’t even think about leaving the grounds. If you’re caught trying, you’re out, and believe me, the ride away from Strickfield is not pleasant. And whatever you do, never ever go down to the lake.”
This is more The Biggest Loser than Clarion, with a strain of cynical truth about the writer biz. The Thing In The Lake adds a touch of pulp horror which I think the story could have done without.
“My Husband Steinn” by Eleanor Arnason
Signy goes to her remote summer place in Iceland to work on her novel, but a troll keeps leaving dead things on her doorstep as courting gifts. This is inconvenient, so Signy installs full-spectrum floodlights and turns him to stone. The troll’s wife agrees that he deserved this for sneaking around to other women, but who will now help her care for her children?
Signy went to the city a few days later and came back with food, though she felt surprised about helping a troll. How could a modern woman be dealing with imaginary creatures from the past, who did not have good reputations? She might get in trouble. But the troll wife was already in trouble, and women ought to stick together, even if they were not the same species.
But Iceland is building a huge power plant in the region, and it disturbs the trolls. They need to decide whether to try to stop it or to leave.
A fine tale about a land where the past lies close beneath the surface and is thus easily lost. I love Arnason’s dryly humorous narrative voice and the troll queen’s alliterative verse:
“Harsh the hand of Signy,
dealing doom to Steinn.
Helpless the troll,
hopeless the ending,
when the battle-swan turned on the lights.”
“The Cult of Whale Worship” by Dominica Phetteplace
Tetsuo is an environmental terrorist trying to engineer a plan to save the whales. He has already become infected by an experimental suicide bug that makes him crave to sacrifice himself to an orca. But this sort of plan is always full of complications.
It wasn’t until later that he realized he could not die this way, not ever, because he might infect the orca with his disease. The realization that he could not depart in this most perfect manner made him weep.
All-too-likely dark humor. The effects of Toxoplasmosa gondii on the behavior of rats is already well-documented.
“This Petty Pace” by Jason K Chapman
Time travel. A guy from the future gives physics student Kylea a warning that saves his life but not his pregnant girlfriend Anna. He becomes embittered by the repeated appearance of this person he cares nothing about, making demands of him.
Someone banged on the door, but it was Gadwin who looked around. Someone, sometime in the dim, dark future, was going to bang on Gadwin’s door. Kyle wished they’d just arrest him already, get him out of Kyle’s life, out of his son’s life. Sorry, Gadwin, but fuck off and leave me alone. It wasn’t his time. It wasn’t his life. It just wasn’t his problem.
But of course it really was his problem.
Fairly standard short TT story, with a moral.
“The Pastry Chef, the Nanotechnologist, the Aerobics Instructor, and the Plumber” by Eugene Mirabelli
And the linguist – the author left out the linguist. And the forensic accountant, although we never actually meet her. Cy and Samantha weren’t really well matched and would never have worked out. Cy not only can’t hear that the water coming from the kitchen faucet is speaking Italian, he thinks Samantha is crazy to hear it. Which no one else thinks. Except that the forensic anthropologist probably would, which means Cy is better off with her, and not Samantha or the aerobics instructor, either – who wouldn’t have made a good match with Samantha. So it all works out in the end. The editor is right, this short fantasy is pretty charming.
“Free Dog” by Jack Skillingstead
The divorce settlement gave the dog to Larson, but his ex makes a copy and releases it as a free download. She probably did it to annoy him; if so, it certainly worked. Cory is his dog and there is only one of him. This one starts out as humor, but it alters to become a rather insightful little piece about the nature of love.
“To Live and Die in Gibbontown” by Derek Künsken
The apes have inherited the Earth, along with a lot of nanoscience. Reggie is a macaque who doesn’t want to go back to the rez when his visa for Gibbon country expires, so he gets the great idea to go into business as a euthanasia assassin, for which, apparently, there is demand. “Is your time up? Die with excitement and adventure! Struggle to the very end! Hire an international assassin to finish the job that nature started! If you see it coming, you get your money back!” It’s only one of his problems that he isn’t very good at the job. His client is the Bonobo Ambassador’s nasty old mother, and he’s soon up to his neck in international intrigue.
Absurdly amusing if you think “I kill old people” is amusing. Some may not.
“A Hundred Hundred Daisies” by Nancy Kress
If This Goes On. Drought has dried up Danny’s farm to the point that his little sister has never seen a daisy like the ones that used to grow in their pasture. A corporation is pumping the water out of the Great Lakes, and the local farmers are determined to sabotage the pipeline. Danny’s parents want him to stay out of it, but he’s just as determined as they are.
“The water is supposed to go to farms around the ‘Great Lakes Basin,’ but it’s not. It’s going to go through the big pipe to ‘The Southwest.’ Danny, why can’t we have some of that water to make our farm grow again?”
The author calls this one “less fiction than prophecy”, but this scenario is already more present than future.
Analog, November 2011
Featuring an “Andrea Cort” novella by Adam-Troy Castro. It isn’t my favorite selection from this issue.
“Unclean Hands” by Adam-Troy Castro
A series story. I believe I may have mentioned here that that I have basic problems with story series and sequels. There is an inherent difficulty in giving equal treatment to readers new to the material and those already familiar with it; there tends to be too much backstory or, less commonly, not enough. My default is always the reader new to the material; first of all, a series story has to stand on its own. In this case, however, it seems pretty clear that the intended reader is one familiar with the series, who wants to read another story about the character Andrea Cort. It is therefore odd that the author loads on so very much backstory about matters with which this ideal reader is probably already well-acquainted. In chronological terms, the story at hand is a prequel; the events take place before those in the previously-published works. Yet the author spends much time re-establishing the character’s backstory based on even earlier events. The narrative is always pointing backwards to the past and forwards to the future stories already told, at the expense of the story-now. It’s distracting, making readers wonder, “Am I supposed to know this already?” “Have I read this before?”
Andrea Cort backstory: as a young child, she took part in a notorious massacre for which she was not morally responsible but because of which she carries a massive load of guilt and angst. Some characters wear their psychic scars openly; this one has spurting stigmata. She has also acquired a burden of notoriety and a very rigid sense of morality.
Story backstory: the Zinn are an ancient alien race with no personal capacity for violence and with highly advanced technology. They are also a dying race that can no longer produce enough children to sustain themselves. Now, for reasons that no human understands, they have bought from humans, who have a large supply, a sociopathic serial killer, whom they intend to imprison in comfort on their homeworld. In exchange, humans will get the advanced tech they crave.
Cort has come to the Zinn homeworld as the nominal legal representative of the prisoner; she is there only to sign off on the transfer and keep her mouth shut. Instead, she inadvertently creates a diplomatic incident by speaking to a Zinn child [which may not have been the accident it seems] and begins to ask the question no one else does: exactly why do the Zinn want a human murderer? Most of the story, and it is a long one, consists of Cort obsessing on her past, obsessing with this question, and engaging in lengthy discussions on the nature of morality; it’s a talky story.
The Zinn child is an appealing, empathetic character. The Zinn purpose, once revealed, is interesting. I can’t help thinking, in fact, that it might have made a more interesting story without the presence of Andrea Cort, whose constant self-absorbed angst is tedious. But I suspect this would not suit the story’s purpose, which seems to be “an Andrea Cort story”, and that aspect takes up most of the text. In this, new readers would seem to have an advantage in not already being familiar with the pattern: Cort comes into a situation where something is wrong, something only she can see. She spends most of the story trying in vain to figure out what it is, until at the end she has the epiphany that reveals the answer. And this is another reason I tend not to like series.
“Ian, Isaac, and John” by Paul Levinson
Another series, time travel this time, but this one is almost entirely independent, except for the central premise, the time travel firm of Ian’s Ion and Eons. The narrator has booked a trip back to 1975 to warn Lennon of his future assassination. Major changes in time are against Ian’s rules, but all his staff know that everyone lies about their purpose for time travel and it’s their job to prevent violations. Within limits.
“We do our utmost to prevent any changes that go beyond the ones outlined in the itinerary. But if something unauthorized does get through, Ian learned a long time ago not to pursue it any further. We’re not time cops, we’re private enterprise—we don’t officially police the timeline. And if we ran around trying to correct any unauthorized changes, we could do a lot more damage than the changes themselves.”
There’s some 70s rock neep here that might interest music fans, as well as the time travel details. The title is an obvious reference to the 1968 classic song, but I must admit not figuring out who “Isaac” might be. Not our Isaac, surely.
“The Boneless One” by Alec Nevala-Lee
Murder mystery. The title refers to the octopus: Old Boneless, who gnaws his own foot in his lightless house, as Hesiod called it. A billionaire scientist has outfitted a yacht for a private scientific expedition, and tension among the staff and crew reaches a peak when they discover what seems to be a new species of luminescent octopus, which seems to me like a very neat thing.
In the water outside, clusters of glowing particles were passing through the sea. There were dozens of such formations, some drifting at random, others bunching and splaying their radial arms to sail serenely past the windows.
Some of them want to remain and study the creatures, but the yacht’s owner is more concerned with meeting his schedule. That night, he is found with his throat cut. The next day, the yacht’s engine has been sabotaged. While general suspicion grows, the most gruesome discovery is made.
This is real science fiction, the key to the mystery being a known and fascinating matter of scientific fact. I also like the poetic allusions.
“Dig Site” by Jack McDevitt
Archaeology. Supposedly. Korvin is working for a museum on the imaginary Aegean island of Phoros [where important history took place that no one ever heard of] when a construction supervisor calls in with a find. It seems there was once a temple on the site, with an altar and marble statuary; one figure of a goddess, the other an anomaly.
The warrior was wearing a helmet that would not have been much out of place in an American professional football game. The visor was a solid piece, yet the face was completely covered, so it must have been transparent. No part of the head or neck was exposed.
“It looks,” she said, “like a robot.”
I just can’t believe how much wrong there is here, coming from this author in particular. For one thing, he seems to have no idea how an archaeological excavation is actually conducted. For another, news of finding marble statuary as described here – not the anomalous warrior, but the goddess figure – from the early Dark Ages would be a find of first importance. And far more interesting to a real archaeologist than any ancient astronauts.
“The Buddy System” by Don D’Ammassa
The narrator tells us about his old buddy, the genius Arthur Buddy, and the system of computerized information analysis he invented.
Although not infallible, it was remarkably reliable in describing foreign troop placements, clandestine international negotiations, locations of terrorist cells and their probable targets, likely places for placement of oil wells and other resource-harvesting methods, and so forth. But while it was a profoundly revolutionary analytical device, it was not actually predictive.
The government [cue ominous theme] decided it wanted a predictive system. Against his better judgment, Buddy complied. For a while, things went well. They went too well.
This is a neat story about decision-making processes and assumptions of infallibility. I think hubris has to go in there somewhere, too. In other hands, it could have been a dark tale of apocalypse, but this author prefers the lighter touch.
“Rocket Science” by Jerry Oltion
Brandon finally realizes his lifelong dream of launching his homemade rocket plane.
I built this rocket myself, and I’m going to fly it into space. If I can do it, anyone can. The future of space flight isn’t in big government programs or megacorporations; it’s right here in small towns all over the world.
In doing so, he gets a lesson in perspective. Leave it to Oltion to puncture this sacred balloon.
“Chumbolone” by Bill Johnson
Politics, Chicago style. The narrator works for the president’s reelection campaign, but the president is a complete chumbolone.
A chumbolone, in Chicago politics, was not a nice word. A chumbolone was a naïve goofball, an amateur, someone who didn’t know how the game of politics was played, how things really worked.
The mayor isn’t supporting the president and the president is going to lose, unless something changes. The narrator has to make a deal, but it has to be the right kind of deal.
The author, if I recall correctly, has lived for some time in Chicago. I suspect he may have drawn some of these characters from life.
Blood and Other Cravings, edited by Ellen Datlow
The editor seems to be in a process of doing updated versions of some of her classic anthologies. This one revisits the vampire themes of 1989’s Blood Is Not Enough. There are fifteen original stories [and two reprints] in almost 400 pp. The settings are contemporary, the genre more horror than dark urban fantasy.
The 1990s humanized the vampire; the subsequent decade carried this process too far, debasing the vampire to an object of romantic fantasy. As Datlow points out, vampires are still selling in the marketplace, but unfortunately the vampire bestsellers today tend to be of this corrupted sort. I had initial misgivings when I saw the subject matter of this book, but I took heart from having recently read Datlow’s recent reclamation of urban fantasy from debasement.
There are very few of the traditional bloodsucking grave dwellers here, which may account for the happy shortage of romantic glamour. The vampires are more of the psychic sort, and the authors present a wide and inventive variety of vampiristic types. The point of view is rarely that of the vampire. This anthology views it much more often from the point of view of the victim; sometimes it isn’t clear which is which. This is a collection for grownups, for adults who appreciate literary subtlety and aren’t likely to put the volume under their pillow, to dream on. I wouldn’t want some of these dreams.
“All You Can Do Is Breathe” by Kaaron Warren
Stuart is a miner who was trapped for a week underground, where he was visited by an ominous apparition.
This was a man. Something like a man. Tall, elongated, the thing looked deep into his eyes. It reached out and almost took his chin with its bony fingers, keeping his head still, paralysing him even though it wasn’t actually touching him.
It left him with these parting words: “See you soon, Stuart.” Stuart possessed a strong will to live, and, once rescued, found himself a popular celebrity in demand for giving inspirational talks. Until the long man reappears.
This opener signals that the stories in this book are likely to come from the “other cravings” side of the ToC. But what we see is not the monster’s craving, but the effect it has on its victim. The long man tells Stuart, “You won’t miss it,” but this is a lie. What he takes is what makes life worth living. The story contrasts the overt parasitism of the apparition with Stuart justifiably eating the lunch of his mate Barry, trapped on the other side of the collapsed wall and unable to reach it. The use of cockroachy things adds an additional touch of creepiness.
“Needles” by Elizabeth Bear
Mahasti is a Mesopotamian demon, Billy a common vampire – in fact one of the few traditional bloodsuckers in this book. They’re on a road trip in the west, pursued by vampire hunters who don’t give them a lot of trouble, when Mahasti decides she needs a tattoo. She thinks it might change her, but she doesn’t say how or why.
The author makes good use of the lamashtu mythology, a demon who preyed on suckling infants. These are merciless and soulless characters; we try to look inside, but there is no longer anything there. In contrast, the fear of their victims is palpable.
He drew back from her needle teeth when she smiled. His hands shook badly enough that he lifted his pencil from the paper and pulled in a steadying breath. Without meeting her eyes, he went back to what he had been drawing once more.
“Blood Yesterday, Blood Tomorrow” by Richard Bowes
Time hasn’t been so good to Lilia. Her boutique is failing. But she has a plan to make it all fashionable again, and it depends on Larry.
Lilia and Larry went back to the time when Warhol walked the earth, Manhattan was seamy and corroded, and an unending stream of young people came there to lose their identities and find newer, more exotic ones. Back then Boyd was still a college kid preparing to go to Yale Law.
Back then, they were flea market dealers, and once they had the good luck to acquire a lot from the defunct club called Myrna’s Place, “a townhouse where you went in human and came out quite otherwise.” They attracted the attention of not only the vampire wannabes but the vampires. Now, they are separated and through the Ichordone cure [the methadone of vampirism], but Lilia senses that Larry is ready for another round.
This is a New York story, a story of fashion and trends and the people who chase the new and exclusive thing. Vampires are perennially in fashion. A clever and sophisticated con goes down.
“X for Demetrious” by Steve Duffy
Imagined from a true account of a man so fearful of vampires that he retreated to his garlic-filled rented room and sequestered himself there until he died. The author imagines that Demetrious Myiciura learned fear as a child in Poland.
That there is dread at the heart of all things, that fear comes to all men at the end and reclaims them for its own. Birthed in blood and chaos, we struggle a little while till inexorably we are undone, and horror waits panting at both ends of existence.
From his father, he learned to give this fear the name of vampires. As he grows old, the fear becomes obsessive until it overcomes him.
This is a fictitious account – how it might have been. In this story, Myiciura turns out to be his own victim, the vampire who drains his own life.
“Keeping Corky” by Melanie Tem
Janie gave birth to Corky fifteen years ago, but she wasn’t allowed to keep him. She is allowed to send him a letter once a month. She almost never gets a letter or photo in return, although she is supposed to.
She was only allowed to call one time because one day she called sixteen times, and then two more times to say sorry for leaving so many messages. The nice lady Hannah said she wasn’t mad at her, just tired. Drained, she said, but Janie didn’t get that. A lot of people said Janie made them tired.
But sometimes Janie can make things happen when she thinks about them, and now Corky’s adoptive parents have said they want to cut off all contact with her.
The description of Janie as “draining” suggests a psychic vampire, but this seems to be true only in a metaphorical sense. She does seem to have some psychic power, but it’s not really a vampiric sort. The connection to the theme is tenuous.
“Shelf-Life” by Lisa Tuttle
The narrator is a rather self-delusional woman who clings to childish dreams about a life of domestic perfection, even though seemingly successful pursuit of these dreams has left her dissatisfied. When her father tells her that he has sold her childhood home, the narrator finds her old dollhouse there in the attic, that her mother had long ago told her she sold. The narrator takes it back as a gift for her own daughter, with disturbing consequences.
The vampire figure is either the dollhouse or some entity living in it. There are two incompatible narratives going on. One, belonging to the narrator, suggests that it causes a kind of obsessive behavior; the suggestion is that this was the original source of the narrator’s emotional problems. The other would have us believe that a malevolent entity inhabits the dollhouse, attempting to damn its owner, in this case the daughter. This literalization of the problem is less effective than the more subtle one, and I can’t take it very seriously here. If such an entity had always inhabited the house, why wouldn’t it have made the same demands on the narrator as her daughter?
“Caius” by Bill Pronzini and Barry N Malzberg
Caius is a charismatic and megalomaniac radio talk show host.
Caius, the man with the answers, the man with the power to strip away falsehoods and false fronts, to unburden and provide direction to so many in this age of inanition. Caius, the oracle of his times. How he has suffered for his art, his genius! How he suffers as confessor for these fools who know nothing of the gravity of his heart.
This very short piece provides a disturbing glimpse of a being who feeds on power, on controlling others. There is definitely vampirizing going on here.
“Sweet Sorrow” by Barbara Roden
Eleven-year-old Brian is devastated by the disappearance of his schoolmate Melissa, and he frequently stops at her house to see the memorials left by friends and neighbors. Old Mrs Gleason next door at first seems sympathetic to his wish to leave something for Melissa.
Even through his cry he heard Mrs. Gleason draw in her breath. He looked up, blinking, and saw that she was smiling. No, grinning, her lips pulled back from her teeth, her eyes seeming to glow. The look was gone in a moment, however, and he wondered if he’d merely imagined that Mrs. Gleason had, for an instant, seemed happy.
Readers will immediately guess what’s going on, and their guess is probably going to be at least partly right; there are two kinds of vampires at work here.
“First Breath” by Nicole J LeBeouf
There’s a trick to this one. The narrator leaves home to find herself. She is wasted on jello shots when she meets a girl who gives her a kiss like no other.
I’m conscious of the warm, wet blossom of blood that drips like melted wax onto my shoulder, and of the absurd and slightly scary fact that I’m pinned under the body of a stranger and she’s hurt me. I push at her, whatever I can reach, but I’m too drunk to have much effect. In fact, I’m so drunk that her knee, what little I can see of it around her hair in my face, seems to be passing right through the couch cushion.
Not exactly what readers will be expecting from this very short piece.
“Toujours” by Kathe Koja
Gianfranco discovered Charles as a waiter in a coffee shop in Paris, always too busy sketching to keep a job. He saw the boy’s gift, he took him, made him, and now Charles is a premier fashion designer with girls falling all over him while Gianfranco serves his every need. Until Gitte arrives in their lives and takes over.
Does one believe in lamia, in succubae? Did Medusa ever smile? What sort of perfume, one wonders, did Messalina prefer?
There are quite a few psychic vampires in this volume, but this is one told from the vampire’s point of view – or so it seems. Koja presents an interesting perspective, leading readers to wonder until the final paragraphs – just who is the vampire here? Or is it a vampire rivalry? A strong narrative voice brings the characters to life.
“Miri” by Steve Rasnic Tem
Rick was an aspiring painter in college when Miri came into his life and leached the color from it. Long after the affair was over, he had thought he would be able to lead a normal life with a wife and children, but he realizes he can never be free of Miri.
The colors began to fade from the faces—the painted ones, and his children’s—he took his eyes away from the camera and blinked. The world had become a dramatic arrangement of blacks and whites. Molly raised her stark face and stared at him, her eyes a smolder of shadow. Where is she? he thought, and looked around. He thought he caught a glimpse—there by a tree, a pale sliver of arm, a fall of black hair, lips a smear of charcoal. He could feel the breath go out of him. Not here. But he couldn’t be sure. He closed his eyes, tried to stop the rising tide of apprehension, opened them, and found that all the colors had been restored to the world with sickening suddenness.
Tem does a particularly effective job conveying the effect of contact with a vampire, a sensation like the chill that supposedly accompanies the appearance of a ghost. Rick’s life is haunted, but there is a disturbing ambiguity present, as if he might be growing slowly insane.
“Bread and Water” by Michael Cisco
Vampirism becomes a disease, possibly spread by the bite of a mosquito. Emory is one of the first victims, hospitalized for study in a special facility with several others, all of them wasting away because the only food they can keep down is blood.
A story that focuses on the “other cravings” of the anthology’s title. Emory craves cold liquids – water, milk.
I am gazing in fascination at the whiteness of a glass full of trembling milk that I’ve stolen from the kitchen. It’s too perfectly white and cold to have come from an animal. It’s so cold, I can’t smell it at all. Cylinder of softly luminous whiteness, standing on a white counter. I close both my reedy hands around it slowly, then lift it up to my mouth. Holding that open, I tilt the glass and let in a trickle, flashing with cold. Now I press the glass to my lower lip and allow the upper to spread itself along the plastic surface of the milk, forming a seal. I drink. I take long pulls. I drink steadily. The glass lightens. The milk is so substantial. A single mass that drops down into my stomach and fills it.
This is a long narrative descending into the surreal, full of vivid descriptions, some of which are hallucinatory. Again, there is ambiguity over who is the real vampire – Emory, or the nurse who develops an unhealthy obsession with him.
“Mulberry Boys” by Margo Lanagan
The mulberries were once ordinary boys and girls before their parents sold them to the man Phillips, who transformed them surgically into neuter silk producers, human silkworms.
Because it is the end of things, if you get chosen. It is the end of your line, of course — all your equipment for making children is taken off you and you are sewn up below. But it is also the end of any food but the leaves — fresh in the spring and summer, sometimes in an oiled mash through autumn if you are still awake then. And it is the end of play, because you become stupid; you forget the rules of all the games, and how to converse in any but a very simple way, observing about the weather and not much more. You just stay in your box, eating your leaves and having your stuff drawn off you, which we sell, through Phillips, in the town.
One of the mulberries has run off and eaten food he can no longer digest, and George is chosen as Phillips’ tracker to go after him. Phillips treats the entire village as if they were idiots, which George resents, but he also has contempt for his fellow villagers whose dependence on town food keeps them enslaved to Phillips and selling their children to him.
A gruesome tale. There is no unnatural craving here, instead it is commonplace greed and a contempt for other beings that does recall the attitude of the vampire towards its prey. Lanagan actualizes the metaphor in original terms.
“The Third Always Beside You” by John Langan
Family dysfunction. For Web and Gert, the mystery of the continued survival of their aging parents’ marriage can only be explained by the presence of a third partner, whom they dub the Keystone, as the piece that supports the union of the other two. The siblings have a way with names.
Met with a direct question, their father became vague, evasive, from which Web and Gert had arrived at their secret nickname for him, the Prince, as in, the Prince of Evasion. Their mother’s response to the same question was simple blankness, from which her nickname, the Wall, as in, the Wall of Silence.
Gert finally gets the story out of an old family friend, and it’s an ordinary, mundane tale. But not the whole of it.
Hard to think of this as a vampire situation, more of a ghost haunting the marriage, and perhaps more to its salvation than to its harm. It’s the keystone that holds the entire structure in place. I found it odd that both Web and Gert, a gay woman, would have automatically assumed the third party in the marriage was a woman, having an affair with the man.
“The Siphon” by Laird Barron
Lancaster is a successful sociopath and probably a serial killer, which makes him a suitable recruit for the NSA, who, at one point, want him to get close to a Greek anthropology professor. A large party meets under corporate auspices, lubricated with money and alcohol, and the subject turns to folklore, to monsters. Monsters there are, who seem to be amused by Lancaster’s petty efforts in their line.
“You killed small animals as a child, didn’t you?” Mr. Blaylock said. He stood before the gaping refrigerator, backlit so his face was partially hidden. Lancaster recognized the man’s voice, his peculiar scent. Mr. Blaylock soothed him. “That’s how it begins. Don’t be afraid. It’s not your turn. Not tonight. Really, you’ve been dead for years, haven’t you?”
It seems to be only metaphorically true that Lancaster is one of the blood-drinking undead, but the monsters he encounters go far beyond vampires in their evil and power – even further than covert government agencies. This is classic horror in an updated setting.
Clarkesworld, September 2011
A brand-new Hugo for this ezine, well deserved for 2010.
“Pack” by Robert Reed
In a sort of post-holocaust world, the narrator lives alone and self-sufficiently in a castle, while dogs sometimes roam in the world outside. But I don’t think they’re actually the canine sort of dogs. A dog shows up and asks to be taken in, but the narrator refuses. The dog remains and brings a mate, and the narrator starts to feed them. There are sometimes fights among the packs of dogs, and sometimes the narrator defends “his” pack.
I had a castle and tech and armor and courage, my own courage and all the other kinds tailored for specific occasions. But perhaps best of all, I had no illusions about my expertise when it came to murderous wild animals. I knew nothing about them, and I never felt at ease among them.
A lot of metaphor going on here. The narrator’s dog reminds him that the greatest empire in history began with a wolf; he thinks of himself as a wolf. And we all know how the empire ended. I like the way the narrator has to get his courage from a dispenser.
“Signals in the Deep” by Greg Mellor
Future parenting. Beth is a smother to her designer son and can’t see why he always seems angry. When he ran off to the edge of the solar system, she had to follow, rationalizing that
in providing for everything perhaps I had unwittingly given him little cause to look back. There was no sense of the past for his generation; everything was about the here and now, and the future was something to worry about when it arrived.
But actually, Matt is the future and doing just fine.
An awfully feelgood piece about humanity. While humor is not intended, I can’t help thinking how some things remain the same: “He never calls!”
GigaNotoSaurus, September 2011
Again, this month’s story is below novelette length.
“Somewhere in the Desert Hides a Well” by Maria Deira
The well seems to be a portal into some other reality, which may be pulling people from our own world and enslaving them. Maybe. And maybe some of them escape. A school van has perhaps fallen into this well and then reappeared, crashed, in a field off the road.
Her wrists had red marks around them, like rope burn. Her nails were dirty and ragged. Had they been drugged? And then what? Had they climbed out of something, pulled themselves up by their fingertips? Maybe they had tried to push the van out of the field. Her shoulders and arms ached and her clothes were damp and soiled.
The exact nature of what happened remains vague, but the point of this story is the need of people for other people, the terrible possibility of being alone, that the incident illustrates by looking at the lives of some of those affected by it.
A rather depressing story, as we see that some of the characters won’t be able to save themselves, and they don’t seem to deserve such a fate.
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