A miscellaneous column. Besides the regular electronic zines, here are a number of publications that come out on different, less frequent schedules. One of these is a debut.
Interzone #249, Nov-Dec 2013
Fresh from winning the 2013 British Fantasy Award. A superior issue featuring John Shirley.
“Unknown Cities of America” by Tim Lees
The narrator, on the road, picks up a girl who has left/escaped from a strange commune, but they are on her trail to take her back, perhaps to a place that doesn’t exist on the usual maps.
A town where no-one chose to stop, but people stopped there anyway: maybe a detour sign, big letters, THIS WAY, and nothing up ahead but blackness and the barrel of a gun; or else the roar of engines, and a fleet of humvees, bikes and souped-up trucks, all swooping down like wolves to fasten on some poor lone traveller, then hem him in and herd him, out into the darkness on the highway’s edge…
A story of infatuation more than love, with hints of the surreal, although we don’t know whether it exists or is a product of the narrator’s imagination. A metaphor for a landscape of hopelessness in which we see the narrator’s hope as futility.
“Paprika” by Jason Sanford
Immortality has its drawbacks. The problem here is that we’ve got two incompatible kinds of immortality going on at the same time: physical and virtual. First, the olds live for millennia with regular rejuvenation, although this tends eventually to fail. There are also the time angels who copy them to their virtual pocket universes where they exist apparently forever. By the time of the story, the physical world has become almost unpopulated, as the olds have lost interest in it all. Paprika is a time angel who holds six persons in virtual storage, but their memories interfere with her own, and she increasingly doubts if their existence is “true living”.
“What if the memories and sentience-maps we time angels save are only dead copies of who you are? Not the whole of who you are and have been?”
Her misgivings violate her programming and put her at odds with the rest of the time angels.
Stories about human immortality are no new thing, but this one picks up interest when the focus turns more directly to Paprika and her conflict with the other time angels. Unlike them, she only virtually hosts a few persons, and it’s noteworthy that we see nothing, learn nothing of them – not names nor individual memories, despite the pain they cause her. Paprika prefers the real alive, especially the toymaker Satoshi and his customer Anya. It’s significant also that Paprika normally takes the physical size of a human child. Children have long been missing from this world; Anya explains that there is no use for them when people can live forever. But Satoshi’s business is the recreation of favorite toys from the memories of the olds’ own childhoods, the part of their lives that seems to have greatest meaning for them after so many artificially prolonged millennia. And in the static virtual universes of the time angels, there will never be children born. This message is the heart of the story.
An author’s note informs us that the story memorializes anime director Satoshi Kon, but it can certainly be appreciated on its own terms.
“Filaments” by Lavie Tidhar
R Brother Patch-It leads the local Church of the Robot at Central Station, where assemble the various characters from previous installments in this series, whom readers are supposed to recognize and won’t comprehend if they don’t, except that the author will supply the background, most of which isn’t really necessary and is in fact distracting from the heart of the very brief piece: amidst the crowd, the robot priest seeks solitude to contemplate the mystery of faith.
“Haunts” by Claire Humphrey
Alekra is the last of the graduates of the Flanders Park School for Duellists; the rest are now haunts.
They used to be sharp, lusty, furious, darting, meticulous, gleeful, a hundred different things according to their natures and their whims. Now they’re all like this, wandering between the garden walls. Sometimes the constellation of their placement barely changes between dawn and dusk.
Retired in defeat, she has begun to sell off her digits to keep the school intact for its ghosts, whom she plans eventually to join. Her new lover has other plans, but so does Alekra.
A portrait of extreme devotion to a craft, to a cause. Nice details of the duelists’ milieu.
“The Kindest Man in Stormland” by John Shirley
In a drowning, storm-ravaged world, Webb has come to the ruins of Charleston, where the cops won’t come, in pursuit of a serial killer. Getting there is a challenge in itself.
Twelve queasy minutes later they were in the wet shadows of the high buildings, heading into a flooded, broken-out cavity at the base of one of the older buildings, a dull monolith of concrete and rust-bleeding steel bolts.
Not quite a post-apocalypse setting, because the apocalypse is ongoing and probably getting even worse, although inland the world seems to be going on, with some technology advanced beyond that of our time. But for the population of coastal Stormland, the squatters and refugees and criminals, survival comes on harsh terms. Part of the story is these conditions, which the author describes vividly. Part is detective story, with Webb, a hired bounty hunter, finding that the worse part of tracking down his quarry is surviving the trip. This is a setting that tends to bring out the worst in many people; the heart of the story is in uncovering the others.
“Trans-Siberia: An Account of a Journey” by Sarah Brooks
The narrator is seventeen when he boards the Trans-Siberia Railway from Beijing to Moscow, an orphaned art student setting off on his own for the first time into a world that will expect him to be a man – whatever that will turn out to mean. He fears what the other passengers will think of him, and he fears the land outside the train, as he ought, full of bleeding trees and predatory flowers. But there is also something predatory inside the train. Monsters.
Those who make the journey make it only once. You can see its traces, if you know how to look. You can see the iron that runs through them, forever.
An intriguing piece, with an apparently ahistorical fantasy setting. Some elements in the text suggest that the time may be the mid-19th century, when the railroad was not yet even a twinkle in the tsar’s eye and didn’t at first connect to Beijing, which was known at the time as Peking. In short, not our own world. Siberia here is a sinister but fascinating fantasy landscape through which the route passes, a “lost country”. The passengers look forward to crossing the line into Europe, into the country of safety and civilization. There are strong suggestions that the land is inhabited by creatures of Russian folklore, such as the rusalka. The heart of the story, however, is in the narrator’s coming of age; the experience of the journey made him a man, but it also marked him indelibly.
Beneath Ceaseless Skies #134-135, November 2013
#134 gives us stories from the aftermath of war; #135 tells of changelings.
“A Death for the Ageless” by Margaret Ronald
Police procedural in a fantasy setting. Refugees from another land have come to live among humans after their own domain was overrun by an Evil Overlord. Chief among them are the Ageless, who seem a lot like elves; they inspire an almost automatic deference in humans.
Ageless were tragic exiles; koboldim were rats fleeing a ship. But they were under the Ageless’ protection, so they were grudgingly accepted by most, as we’d accepted other changes the Ageless brought.
Ageless exceptionalism conflicts with police procedure when one of the eldest Ageless is found obviously murdered – which isn’t supposed to happen. To Inspector Swift’s annoyance, the deceased’s wife refuses to allow him to examine the body, but this isn’t stopping him or his kobold colleague.
A lot of implicit background story here, but the focus remains mostly on the mystery, even when the solution rests on details unique to the immortals. It’s the untold backstory, though, that gives this one more fascination that it might have had. One serious copyediting lapse: the name of the expatriots’ city is alternatively spelled with an acute and a grave accent, something that certainly should have been caught before publication.
“Forsaken Beneath the Stars” by Jason S Ridler
The Bestorians have invaded and conquered the Macti, apparently to bring them to the worship of their wayfaring god, but the price was high. Enrick, once priest of the Wayfarer and a man of peace, once soldier obsessed with revenge, has been driven mad by the ghost of his wife. Now he has sought out the heathen witch who killed her, begging for an exorcism to set her free.
She died under our blades and anger and went wherever those people go, to wander with their Wayfarer and conquer the world with iron. Part of Hesher cackled at the tortured mind before her. It had forged chains of painful memories upon itself. A little man of spiritual weakness, who failed to save his own, and tortures himself with that memory as he carves out a life of blood and suffering….
A grim story of revenge and damnation. The point of view shifts between Enrick and the Macti witch Hesher; neither of them have clean hands or clear consciences. It’s a complicated story, taking an effort from readers to unravel the past events on which everything depends. Readers who manage to figure it out might well wonder if the Wayfarer would be happy with what his worshippers have done in his name.
“Moreau’s Daughter” by Holly Messinger
A sort of multiple mashup set in late Victorian London, where monsters roam the streets. Lily, as the title suggests, is one of the vivisectionist Moreau’s creations, now an assassin who comes to London when she learns of a serial killer who may have been vivisecting the city’s prostitutes. The man who calls himself Jack Nemo is obsessed with carrying out the Maker’s Law, within limits. “To hunt other Men was in strict violation of the Law. But the Maker had made clear that females were expendable.”
The piece is mostly taking advantage of the opportunity to gather these characters on the same stage, as they could have been in history, if they were all historical characters rather than fictional. The author arranges one more meeting for Lily, in order to double down on the question: Just what makes a monster? The last line strikes me as ironic in its implied condescension to Lily.
“Your Figure Will Assume Beautiful Outlines” by Claire Humphrey
A boxing story. Vanna’s father was once a boxing champion and had been training his daughter to follow him into the ring when he was forced into exile in Savaurac, where the Provosts don’t allow females in the ring. The local promoter he works for likes Vanna’s prospects, though, so he arranges a charm to make her appear to be a boy. But the Provosts don’t allow illicit magic, either.
The tone is iffy in this one. For the most part, it’s a light romantic comedy, but there are moments of tragedy that may make readers uneasy with the contrast. The boxing scenes are well done. Vanna finds that things are a bit different, fighting lads instead of lasses, which she hadn’t been trained for.
I fought again a half-decadi later: a fellow with hands like granite already and heavy muscle twining over his shoulders above the torn neck of his singlet. I walked in thinking I was a fine gritty fighter, and I walked out with my tooth stuck through my inner lip.
Tor.com, November 2013
Including the end of October. A good month, some nice stories here, original and independent.
“Brimstone and Marmalade” by Aaron Corwin
Mathilde wants a pony for her birthday, but her parents insist on getting her a demon instead. Mathilde protests, “How could anyone think that a demon was better than a pony?”
Which is of course the problem; this is a very silly premise. Given that, however, it turns into a charming little piece that deftly avoids the usual and expected kidlit formula. The demon is sufficiently demonic while not actually evil, which is a neat trick.
“The Oregon Trail Diary of Willa Porter” by Andy Marino
The diarist is an embittered teenage girl given over to the guardianship of her uncle and aunt in consequence of her father’s DISGRACE. They have in 1846 embarked in a wagon train for Oregon, and the diary records her complaints against her situation, particularly jealous of her cousin. Everything changes when a storm arrives with incessant rain that lasts almost two weeks. Trapped in the mud, the travelers watch the world mutate hideously around them.
It was as if the poor animal’s head had been picked apart by a knitting needle from the inside out. Brains and bits of skull were still attached, but by the thinnest of threads. As I struggled to find purchase in the mud for both of us, the animal’s dangling eyes stared up from their place next to its tongue and regarded me.
While I can’t credit the diarist’s voice as of its time, it’s engaging in a contemporary way. As conditions become nightmarish, she begins to display true empathy and concern for her family. The account as told here is true horror; when the vines creep up from the riverbank and begin to strangle the wheels of the wagons, it’s clear that these are no natural phenomena. Yet readers may wonder: How reliable is this narrator? We know that the diary isn’t entirely truthful. Could many of these details be the product of her imagination? Or if conditions have driven her relatives into hysteria and catatonia, perhaps Willa has succumbed to delusions? The final line, a very strong one, argues otherwise, but I find the story more intriguing with a hint of ambiguity.
“Feature Development for Social Networking” by Benjamin Rosenberg
Zombies in the age of social media. A zombie plague [aka AER/CI] has broken out, and naturally users are talking about it on Facebook. But FB’s feature developers are also hard at work on projects for exploiting the novelty, which would be easier if Legal and other bureaucracies within the organization would get with the project.
Can we use a different word? I’m not really all that comfortable with “zombie” from a disability rights perspective. It has really negative cultural connotations. It’s one thing if people with AER/CI want to reclaim that word, but I don’t think we should be doing it for them. How about “rager” or just “contracted AER/CI”?
Funny stuff, depressingly so. I wonder if Legal at Tor had to sign off on the use of “Facebook”.
“Thirteen Steps in the Underworld” by Su-Yee Lin
A list story. A list of lists story, in fact, given that many of the listed steps include other lists.
Step Five: Reasons for Entering the Underworld
1. Spider bite
2. Heart attack
3. Being struck by lightning
4. Old age
5. Looking for your dead wife.
Also a list story in the second person. The author has thrown way too many stylistic gimmicks into this. Amidst it all, readers may discern the real problem here: the narrator’s missing memories, particularly the memories of his dead wife. What we can’t tell, among other things:
1. Is the narrator alive or dead? [He may be alive. His wife thinks he isn’t supposed to be there.]
2. Is the memory loss an effect of being in the Underworld, or is he suffering from Alzheimers? Or did he die from it? Is this all a metaphor for dementia?
3. If the memory loss is an effect of being in the Underworld, does the recovery of his memory mean he’s going to remain there now?
To me, the journey seems to be that of the soul from life into eternity, and there’s real poignancy at the end, even if that isn’t so. But all the lists don’t add anything to it, rather the contrary.
Betwixt #1, Fall 2013
The debut of another new ezine which, as the title suggests, intends to explore the interstitial territorial betwixt genre boundaries. There are seven pieces of varying lengths; mostly they can be called fantasy. If there is a common flaw, it is incompleteness. Most of these could have been much better stories if whole, but they fail in their promise. Also unfortunate lapses in copyediting.
“The Hind” by Ian Hamilton
Metaphor for male assholery and drunkenness.
The Hind is a menace. Big game bursting through the seams of a cheap suit. He comes chargin’ into the barroom, nostrils flaring, teeth gnashing. His antlers scrape the ceiling. He lights a smoke with your lighter and forgets to give it back. He takes a mouthful of peanuts and knocks the bowl to the floor. Smash. Drunk. Eyes yellow. Mouth foaming.
A bunch of English bros out for a night on the Korean town fall in with the Hind and get wasted. The prose is vigorous, but unfortunately for the metaphor, the hind is the female of the red deer species; the male is called the hart. Sort of upends the whole thing.
“Said the Axe Man” by Tam MacNeil
Translating the Green Knight story to the Old West.
Every time I’ve offered a sheriff the chance to play a dueling game they’ve come out into the main street and shot me dead right then. Nobody minds an easy win when a township is huddled and afraid. But when I pick my body up and remind the sheriff to come to me, come get the same in a year, well then those men they rue their haste and the town laments, as if open murder was somehow less despicable than a miracle.
The metaphors and symbols translate from the medieval legend effectively and the situation intrigues, but this isn’t a story, only a situation, the start of something unfinished.
“Mayor of a Flourishing City” by Mark Rigney
The anonymous city isn’t flourishing when Janet Bentham takes up the stressful job of mayor. Her uncanny assistant reluctantly supplies the address of Don’s Salvage Yard: VERY PRIVATE. KEEP AWAY. HONK TWICE IF ENTERING. But there’s a catch. You can only take one thing out of Don’s; you have to make a choice. Nice fantasy variation on the deal with the devil.
“Beyond, Behind, Below” by Betsy Phillips
A man with no heart visits the place where he has left it, unwisely unprotected. A haunting dark fantasy, the strength in the details.
In the far, dark corner of the cabin stood an old pie safe, one with tin sides and doors decorated with hex symbols. Surely, though, this piece of furniture must have been a later addition. Why would the family have left something so sturdy and useful behind? Even if they could not have used it, might it not have found a purpose among others on the farm?
“Long-Distance Call” by Benjamin Sherlock
SF in space. The Centauri Foundation has had the bad idea to send one-man spacecraft alone on the long journey to establish a colony. Like Bullwinkle pulling a rabbit out of a hat, this trick never works, but they keep on trying. The current sacrificial victim is named February Delta, which would seem to be more like the name of the mission than a human being, and his AI companion is Martin, which seems like the name of a human. Alina Holt, communications manager on the station that monitors the mission, met Delta once before takeoff and made him a promise that she would stay with him until the end. Owing to increasing distance and time dilation, intervals between communications have grown; now Alina begins to detect a strain in Delta’s voice.
Readers will instantly recognize this as a HAL story. The question is which of the two entities onboard the spacecraft has broken down, man or AI. The heart is Alina’s loyalty to her promise to Delta. Unfortunately, Alina is an offputting character who seems to be bad at her job and doesn’t earn the respect of her colleagues, from a carousing youth to a crabby old age. I can’t help thinking, mostly because of the names, that the human is actually the AI and the AI is the human, but I suspect this is most likely because the story is unclearly written.
“The Golden Coins of Victory” by Marlys Jarstfer
The British queen Boudicca takes revenge on the Romans, using black Druidic magic. Poorly written and unoriginal.
I once again turned my back on the horrors before me, hoping to control my revulsion. Within moments I turned back, realizing that the strongest emotion I faced was not horror, but envy. How I longed to be among the walking Iceni dead in Camulodunum, wreaking upon the Romans a consequence more gruesome than they had delivered onto us!
“The Red Danube” by Bernie Mojzes
A porn star is making a film about the generations of atrocity in the Balkans, set and shot on the Danube where hundreds of victims were murdered in one of the wars. The film will never be completed, not as planned. It will never be forgotten.
But in the end, even in this infinite proliferation of versions and truths and meanings and interpretations, we still have that one scene, the last one, untouched and absolute. The one we all come back to, time and again. The one that strips away the words and leaves no room for any truth but itself.
A story of transcendence, dark fantasy that crosses and recrosses the boundary between the erotic and the brutal. The combination of sex and atrocity works well here, although I’m not impressed by the puddle of dissolved and integrated goo. In this case, I would have preferred a less overtly genre-horror conclusion.
The Dark #2, December 2013
Second issue of this new dark fantasy zine, which is picking up weirdness as it grows. With publications sited at this region of the genre, I always wonder if they will come down on the side or horror or of dark fantasy. This issue makes it clear: fantasy.
“Our Lady of Ruins” by Sarah Singleton
Rider is obviously unfamiliar with folklore, because he doesn’t know better, when his car breaks down, to follow a strange girl in a red coat into the darkness of the woods.
The road disappeared behind him. Silence—except for the crunch beneath his boots. Prepared for the cold he had a hat and black sheepskin mittens. His mobile lay in his zipped up pocket, a protective charm proved useless.
She leads him to a ramshackle church on wheels with a small group of worshipers who insist he is a long-expected pilgrim. He is drugged and filled with prophecies of flood and ruin. He remembers. Then he comes to and is back on the road, months later.
An enigmatic piece. Nothing is totally clear, whether we have gone to past or future or, most likely, into another timeline altogether, where Rider seems to be a sort of recurring champion. Yet no apocalyptic battle takes place; we don’t know why and suspect it may never come. All we know is that once touched by it, we will never be the same.
“Nameless Saint” by Willow Fagan
A nameless woman who considers herself a saint but who might be considered a witch, having sold her names for power that she employs in collecting the misery of strangers.
The nameless woman holds up a glass bottle, empty save a slice of lemon anointed with her spit. (The lemon draws the misery in.) The misery in this house is subtle but lingering, like the smell of autumn leaves in the winter, like a fugue played slowly on a piano.
One day a young girl with the power of sight notices her and shows up persistently at her doorstep. Ruth sees what the nameless woman does not want seen, what she can’t see herself.
Neat variation on ghost bottles, with a touch of madness. The story is ambiguous throughout, and the ending only emphasizes this. Well-done.
“Wrought Out From Within Upon the Flesh” by E Catherine Tobler
Another jar, this one holding a chained woman.
[Cassandra] knows how Emery fashioned her. Every cruel word that spilled from his lips is contained within these chains that spill from her wrists. One length joins to the other, her arms a never-ending circle. She shifts only enough to allow the people to see it is the same for her legs, chains all the way down. He has made her this way—beautiful, untouching and untouchable—a thing that cannot move beyond the limits he has placed upon her.
Cassandra is part of a freakshow, displayed in the jar by day, warming Emory in his bed by night. But changes happen. A hand begins to form at her wrist, where there was only chain. And outside, regarding her with horror is a woman that she recognizes as an earlier self.
A love story, of a perverted sort. But it would be oversimplifying to call this a metaphor of abuse, even though that element is here. “She can feel the weighted, accusatory stares from other women as they pass through the tents. Many turn away sobbing at the sight of her and she understands their own scars now—these women have always known her pain because they too bear such marks.” Yet Cassandra and Emory have a mutually destructive relationship. As he changes her, she changes him; as she grows, he shrinks. Tantalizingly, at the end of the story it’s clear that this process of mutual mutation hasn’t ended, and we can only wonder what it will come to next.
“Five Boys Went to War” by Amanda E Forrest
Clara’s five sons went off to WWII, one by one except for the twins, who went together. One by one, they were killed and reborn from their mother’s womb as fish.
Eddie was the biggest, and her labor was the most difficult. By the time he was born, his spines had already begun to stiffen, and he lodged inside, fought the contractions. She screamed and screamed again, and finally he slid free in a wash of blood and water and fish. A quick wipe of the towel over his flesh, and she stumbled and barely kept her balance as she ran to slip him into the sink where she’d slowly cool his temperature over the course of hours. Water over his gills, and he paused to stare at her before swimming to explore the contours of his pool.
Unfortunately, the fish have begun to suffer from the sort of fungus that frequently infects aquarium specimens.
While the story of the Sullivan brothers instantly comes to mind on reading this, the author hasn’t made direct allusions to it, and the details of the sons’ deaths are different. It’s a tale of grief and letting go, but the fish part is just inexplicably weird.
Unlikely Story #7, November 2013
aka The Journal of Unlikely Entomology, the zine having returned to its arthropodan origins. Eight stories, all quite short. I quite like the Headley.
“The Pasammophile” by Maria Dhavana Headley
A love story. A pair of katalogophiles exchange favors, listing fascinating and fantastic rarities. Pure imagination. I totally savor this kind of thing:
I read once, Dearest Sir, of an hourglass filled with powdered eggshell, inside of which the shells realigned themselves one afternoon into an egg, perfect, gleaming. An hour after that, there was heard a cracking, and the shell opened to reveal a singing bird, and an hour after that, the bird cracked open to reveal a bee which flew to the upper chamber. An hour later, the hourglass dripped with honey, and then the hours passed more slowly than they had done before.
“The Years of the Tarantella” by Sarah Brooks
The narrator’s husband has an enchanted/cursed guitar that makes him play the dance obsessively.
In the middle of the afternoon, the windows smashed, raining glass down on the street below. By nightfall cracks had appeared on the walls. The apartment was evacuated at midnight, and the dance went on in the dark streets until morning.
Variation on the classic dancing story in the tale of a marriage cursed by obsession. I wish the author had not mentioned the wolf spider. The spider she describes in the story is a web-spinner, which the wolf spider is not.
“Strange Invasion” by Darren O Godfrey
What erupted out of the hole on the 11th green of the Preston Country Club were scorpions. And what’s worse, the little fuckers kept my ball from going in the hole after I’d hit one of the best chip shots of my entire life.
Typical golfer. But the real question is the gravy boat, or what looks like one but seems in fact to be an alien spacecraft. Panic ensues, justifiably so.
The mode is humor, which is to say that you can relate the most horrific events if you don’t take them seriously.
“The Wall Garden” by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
Kevin is a dirtbag suffering from depression whose friends kick him out when he crashes too long at their place. He considers suicide, but instead picks up and kills a woman. He then wakes in a sort of hell in the form of a slug, where he is preyed on by more aggressive creatures. Seems fitting.
The insectile figures here are only figurative, representing the lowest stages of reincarnation.
“A Superfluity” by Helen Anderson
Something has happened to upset the order of things, so that Sarah now has to live in her grandmother’s smelly old house and have no friends, while displaced nuns that may not be nuns now live in an old lunatic asylum. Grandmother’s house has wasps in the roof, and the nuns have wings under their habits. One of the nuns seems to be just as out of place as Sarah; neither of them quite belong where they are, or anywhere else.
A slightly surreal and disconnected piece about being an outsider when no one understands, which is a typical YA concern.
“Pompilid” by Nghi Vo
Conversations between a tarantula and the tarantula hawk that captures it and lays its egg in its belly.
“Little killer,” I murmured without much heat. It was, but so was its mother. So was its entire race, and so, for that matter, was mine.
Making the point that perhaps it’s just as well such creatures lack sentience. The tarantula practices resignation, but it’s a bit much for the wasp to expect it to love her.
“The New World” by Dennis Tafoya
Retaliation. As the conquistadors came to American, so the giant antoids have come in their turn. Messagey.
“Found Items – Notes and Tapes (Evidence Bag 2)” by Mark Rigney
Ken is a reporter assigned to do a story on Iraq war veterans and one of his subjects is Melissa Montgomery, suffering from PSTD. Melissa wants nothing more than peace, so she moves to a forest in Kentucky where living is cheap and cicadas abundant. Too abundant for peace and quiet.
Basic bug horror story, in which we are to entertain a supposition that the cicadas are mostly in Melissa’s imagination. Ken is an unsympathetic character who might be said marked out for victimhood, but readers will feel that Melissa did nothing to deserve her fate.