Paula Guran Reviews Dark Short Fiction: Shimmer, Black Static, Nightmare, The Dark, and Uncanny

Shimmer 9/18
Black Static 9-10/18
Nightmare 11/18
The Dark 10/18, 11/18
Uncanny 9-10/18

Shimmer #45 is the publication’s penultimate issue, with the last, #46, out in November. The magazine’s goal was to be a “specula­tive magazine that focused on stories that existed in the in-between places. Not quite science-fiction, not quite fantasy, but having threads of both. Also, stories that were not afraid to focus on loss and death and grief; how these things change people, how people move forward in spite of them, or how they don’t.” It fulfilled that objective admirably and I shall miss it.

My favorite story of this issue is dark fairy tale “Dead Things” by Becca De La Rosa. Odile – who can be many things – has always lived in the Kingdom of Death as part of the death god’s manor. When the girl Anyechka first arrives, Odile resents her. They learn to love one another, but – as her master soon reminds her, Odile does not own her­self – Odile cleverly resolves a difficult situation.

I also enjoyed Stephanie Charette‘s “By the Hand That Casts It“. Briar Redgrave practices floriography in an alternate Victorian London full of assassins. Her flower arrangements communi­cate everything for her clients from shy affection to more passionate requests via le langage des fleurs. Her favorite customers, though, are the assassins who send less affectionate messages, but when the dashing but brash Crimson Hawk arrives in her shop, Briar must use old talents that have nothing to do with blooms. It’s a delightful little piece full of swashbuckling. Briar has a great deal more to tell about her past and future history.

Find On Your Body the Bruise” by Maricat Stratford is about death, but it is also comfort­ing. A murdered woman is rather pleased she did not meet death by her own hand. It means no one will be angry with her at her funeral. This doesn’t keep her from a ghostly visit to her murderer (and his dog).

In “Lighthouse Waiting” by Gwendolyn Clare, a sentient warning system arrayed over 144 stations warns ships away from a deadly space rift. A war has taken its creator/engineer away and – with flawless memory and amazing functional­ity – it pines for him for, in human terms, a very long time. A little sappy, but the story effectively portrays nonhuman intelligence.

The unusual ghost idea in “The Ghost Pet Detective” by Ryan Row is a good one and the characters are interesting, but the story is somehow incomplete. Law meets Norma at his brother Art’s funeral. She announces Art did not kill himself, but Law feels otherwise. Law doesn’t quite live in the world and now Art is no longer in it; or, he learns through Norma, maybe he is….

The seven stories in Black Static #65 cover a range of subject matter, but all are suitably stygian. An elderly mother moves in with her artist son, Lyle, in “Imposter/Imposter” by Ian Muneshwar. Lyle’s partner Èdgar begins to sense the presence of someone else in the house. Well written and atmospheric, the story is still perplexing, as there seems to be no connection between the mother and what is happening other than her telling Èdgar of a parallel situation concerning Lyle’s father.

The End of the Tour” by Timothy Mudie tells of rock star Sean Durand who, as a child, was cured of cancer by an experimental nanotherapy that never worked for anyone else. The cost of the treatment left his parents destitute and Sean inhabited with strange nanobots that provide him with a lucrative musical career. Naturally, there’s a price to pay. Like Muneshwar’s story, this is a good read, but lacks some internal logic.

Marrow” is a dark cautionary tale that has been told many times, but E. Catherine Tobler twists it into a worthy retelling. On a ravaged fu­ture Earth, “Eatr” is a drone that eats people, but not children. It is befriended by the girl Alix, who helps Eatr evade the patrols hunting it.

In the Gallery of Silent Screams” by Carole Johnstone & Chris Kelso is an incommodious story that is difficult to describe. It concerns an artist who turns abominations of nature into art and a young woman who holds him accountable for what she sees as his role in life. Good horror makes one uncomfortable, and this one certainly does just that.

Coincidently, Kailee Pedersen‘s “The Pur­suer” also concerns profoundly upsetting art: a painting created by the narrator’s profoundly up­setting father. The daughter is the executor of her highly successful father’s estate and owner of his disturbing final masterpiece. Her wife, however, loathes the painting. A disquieting story unfolds.

Masayuki, the protagonist of Matt Thompson‘s “The Gramophone Man“, is haunted, first by eerie sounds and smells, then by a ghost. We learn he was a Japanese soldier during the Sec­ond Sino-Japanese War, who participated in the Nanjing Massacre. Reason enough to be haunted. Thompson evocatively relates Masayuki’s story.

Adroitly written, “Squatters Rights” by Cody Goodfellow is a surreal vision of strange survival. Sample sentence: “Just before dawn, migratory Nokia, iPhone, Android, and T-Mobile birds darted out of the cast iron sky to dive into the tiny holes, but we saw none of them come out.” And that’s one the story’s more “normal” images.

Dead Lovers on Each Blade, Hung” is the sole original story in Nightmare #74. It’s a novelette with all the thrills of a dark old pulp tale: enchant­ment, a dazzling shrine, a mysterious maestro, lost love, enchantment, snakes! – but author Usman T. Malik is Pakistani, so we are spared the typically pulp colonial attitude, racism, and bigotry. Hakim Shafi’s young wife, Malifa, has been missing for two years. Despite a desperate search, he has no clues to her whereabouts. Shafi saves the life of a heroinchi (junkie) he finds in Lahore Park and helps him kick his habit. The ex-druggie (and narrator) uses his street cred to obtain the clue that will lead Shafi to his wife. It’s a great read, highly cinematic.

Nightmare #75’s two new stories are not as entertaining as Malik’s. “The Island of Beasts” by Carrie Vaughn reads like the beginning of a longer work. A female werewolf, evidently the victim of 19th-century lycanthropic politics, is left alone on an island. Other werewolves, all male, are already there. They haven’t devolved into pure animals and destroyed each other – as was evidently expected – but have formed two packs under two leaders and coexist with as much civility as the situation allows. Both want the woman/wolf in their packs, but she refuses both. There are mut­terings of Lords of Wolves and Masters of Blood.

Adam-Troy Castro‘s “The Ten Things She Said While Dying: An Annotation” is supposed to be amusing. A demon wreaks deadly damage as it enters our world and comments on what a horrifically wounded 22-year-old woman says just before she dies and why her words lead to demonic “acceptance.” It did not amuse me.

Uncanny Magazine #24 is a special “Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction” issue guest edited by Elsa Sjunneson-Henry & Dominik Parisien and features five original stories. The first, “The House on the Moon” by William Alexander, is set on a future inhabited moon. A school tour group that includes the young narrator visits an old Welsh castle transported at great cost (and little taste) to the moon. Refer­ences to a Eugenics War establish that discrimination against the disabled got worse in the future before it got better. If it did get better. Our adventurous young protagonist has advantages – some supplied by a kickass abuela – her less-challenged classmates lack. A highly entertaining tale that fulfills its theme (“Whatever we’re able to do – and whatever meaning we make of that – changes from one environment to another.”) very well.

Birthday Girl” by Rachel Swirsky is a thought­ful story about family relationships. Seven-year-old Natalie is challenged by bipolarism and Tourette Syndrome. A rift has occurred between her mother and aunt – the mother’s sister who donated ovum so she could have the child. The characters are wonderfully portrayed, but even with reasons provided I was still puzzled by the mother’s choice of donor.

Jennifer Brozek‘s “An Open Letter to the Fam­ily” is just that: a missive from a person with Garrod-Chariot Syndrome whose life is made infinitely more productive and comfortable by living and working in a zero-G environment on a space station. Informa­tive – and the primary goal of this issue is to “start conversations” – but not really a story.

Gina, in “Heavy Lifting” by A.T. Greenblatt, has mobility issues but she’s great with code. Her job with Bruno is supposed to be figuring out more efficient routes and routines for factory robots, but when robot after robot goes dangerously rogue, Gina not only has to save Bruno, but figure out what’s going on. It’s a cute uplifting story.

Kaityn Falk, the protagonist of by A. Merc Rus­tad‘s “The Frequency of Compassion“, is autistic and hyper-empathic. They (Kaityn is also agendered) work for the Galactic Exploration for Peace agency and find the quiet isolation on the edges of known space greatly to their liking. Nav AI Horatio is the perfect companion. When Kaitlyn encounters alien life, it becomes obvious they are more suitable for the job than the agency.

The two originals in The Dark #41 differ radically. An entrance to the Underworld, we learn in “Psychopomps of Central London” by Julia August, starts at London’s Hunterian Museum then winds through the modern city into ethereal boundaries and gates. We are guided by a psychopomp who narrates the tale in second person to a mother seeking her daughter. Suitably atmospheric, this small dark journey is beguiling.

In “Dukkering” by Nelson Stanley, the grown-up version of a Romani boy tells how his mother died. Although she claims to have no real fortunetelling powers, a chovair (witch) comes to her seeking answers. When she can’t provide them, she’s given an ultimatum: deliver within three days or die. The mother claims she has no gift, but the inference is that the mother can see the future and chooses not to tell it; she prefers to tell comforting lies. There’s a lot of potential in “Dukkering,” but it doesn’t quite hit the mark. More clarity here would have helped and although a lot of Romani is used, the mid-19th-century setting lacks appropriate ambience, detail, and language to support the tale.

The Dark #42 features David Tallerman and Hache Pueyo. In Tallerman’s “The Only Way Out Lies Farther In“, seven-year-old Laurie – dragged through a country house tour by her parents – is tired but becomes enthused at a chance to walk a labyrinth. It’s not the maze she expected and by the time her family exits, the adults seem like strangers who merely look like her parents. “Something had happened there; something crucial and intangible had been lost. They had gone in as a family, come out as strangers – or had never left at all.” The story becomes a big fat metaphor of life: how change and choices are difficult, how one must sometimes get lost in order to find oneself. We know that, but it is nice to be reminded by a well-wrought allegory

Similarly, Hache Pueyo’s “Sea-Crowned” has a larger story: those who are truly different will never be accepted by those who are normal. Two children are found floating in a basket on the sea, evidently the only “people of the sea” left alive after some sort of landlubber massacre. One looks almost normal, the other is monstrous. Taken in and named, respectively, Martim and Jamim. Martim lives a close to normal life, Jamim – the narrator – is kept away from ev­eryone, but they remain bound in their love for each other. They ending comes a bit abruptly for my taste, but the story is still a good one.

And, with this issue, another year soon comes to an end! May the coming year be full of fabulous fiction and life.

Paula Guran has edited more than 40 science fiction, fantasy, and horror anthologies and more than 50 novels and collections featuring the same. She’s reviewed and written articles for dozens of publications. She lives in Akron, Ohio, near enough to her grandchildren to frequently be indulgent.

This review and more like it in the December 2018 issue of Locus.

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