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

Sirenia Digest #164, #165, #166
Black Static 11-12/19
The Dark 11/19, 12/19
Uncanny 11-12/19
Nightmare 12/19
Beneath Ceaseless Skies 12/5/19

I mention Sirenia Digest here from time-to-time in case readers are unaware of it. Author Caitlín R. Kiernan started offering it monthly to subscribers long before Patreon became a way to help support a writer. What does it contain? Here’s a recent sampling. Despite the fact Kier­nan had vowed never to write another vampire story, issue #166 features an original vampire story, “Mercy Brown“. (Weary as I might be of vampire stories, one by Kiernan is an exception.) Issue #165 features “Refugees“, a Dancy Flam­marion story written for forthcoming collection Come a Pale Rider that is otherwise unavailable. (There’s a vampire in it, but it is not a vampire story.) “Wisteria“, a new ghost story is in #164.

I write this in December, so the first two stories of Black Static #72, both of which take place in the dead of winter, are particularly appropriate. Both are effectively chilling reads for any cold night. The string people in “The String People” by Matt Thompson suffer from a condition that cripples them and leads to eventual death. As the epidemic began to claim thousands, many have become homeless. A group of them have formed an encampment near the train station Daniel uses to get to work. After speaking to one of them, Livia, Daniel becomes obsessed. This leads to a stay in a strange hotel and trip deep into the weird.

The southern border of the Arctic lays just across the sea from the Icelandic village of Fiskurfjörður where Birta has lived all her life. “The Longest Night” by Emily B. Cataneo takes place there in December 1966. Birta, Mar­gret, and the other villagers must perform a ritual to keep a ghost away. “[T]here was no avoiding the ghost if it got into the village. Everyone said that it would whisper disaster into the very foundations, that it would starve and freeze the people who lived there, and its breath would steal everything in its wake.” In the course of the tale, Cataneo conveys a great deal about Birta, Mar­gret, and a few other 30-something women who all grew up together. Birta doesn’t fear the ghost as the others do and likes it, “she realized, when things didn’t go according to plan.” Interesting, well wrought, and a terrific ending.

Hannah’s mother in “In the Hope Chest” by Sarah Read tells he child Grandma is in the hospital, but the reader easily sees through the excuse for her disappearance. Hannah’s love for her missing grandmother leads her to create a simulacrum using her dress dummy, old sewing machine, and clothing still redolent of the woman. Hannah inadvertently spooks and enrages her already abusive, drunken mother, but something of Grandma comes to her granddaughter’s aid. An effective, grim but tender story for anyone who has been loved by a grandparent or is one. Evocative use of a treadle sewing machine and a hope chest will play well for those who recall such things.

A yellow door suddenly appears in place of the fireplace in Lisa and Eve’s new home in Jack Westlake‘s “Looking“. Of course curious Lisa and cautious Eve open it. Who wouldn’t? West­lake entices and tempts much as the door does. You’ve been warned.

Ellen finds a wounded mermaid trapped in the mangrove roots in “As Dark as Hungerby S. Qiouyi Lu and rescues her. Coincidentally, former lover Stella shows up looking for live mermaids; there’s a high-paying a market for them that Stella says she can serve in a “humane” way that mutilates but doesn’t kill. Ellen can’t resist the opportunity to earn enough to escape her meager existence on the river, nor can she resist Stella. Lot of levels to this one. Explore them.

Tim Lee‘s “Watching” is a story that really didn’t need to be told. Abused as a boy, the nar­rator now participates in the abuse of other boys. Grim and somewhat graphic.

The Dark ends 2019 with four good originals from issues #54 and #55. Both stories from #54 are notable. Unhappy in an America “devoid of the chaotic magic of her homeland, devoid of any kind of magic,” a young Indian woman finds comfort and logic in solving, then creat­ing crossword puzzles in “Logic Puzzles” by Vaishnavi Patel. But there is fearful power in her puzzles. Awesome horror. “The Beckoning Green” by Elizabeth Childs tells of a woman’s life from childhood to old age, through war and loss and love and change. “The green” is always with her, to disappear into, to sustain and renew, to comfort, to fear. Moving, elegiac, complex in its simplicity.

You Were Once Wild Here” by Carlie St. George leads off The Dark #55 and is the stronger of the pair of originals. Teenaged Emily “knows things” she “shouldn’t in dreams.” Her parents are some sort of monster killers and/or occult detectives on the trail of a serial killer (or something worse). Laura, Emily’s only friend in the suffocating small town in which Emily and her family currently abide, is dead and was once a werewolf. Overprotective parents (they’ve already lost one child) won’t allow Emily into the family business, but Emily’s investigation into Laura’s death proves she’s ready to become part of it. This stand-out supernatural noir-ish story, though, is really about surviving (or not) without losing a part of yourself. St. George has previously combined noir and fairy tales in a few stories. Emily and her uncanny dysfunctional family deserve further exploration. “The Muse of Palm House” by Tobi Ogundiran is surprisingly standard genre for The Dark. A painter moves into an old manse intent on suicide. His death, he figures, will punish his ex-wife and enhance his stature as an artist. The gothic ensues when he discovers the caretaker’s beautiful daughter, Lara, whose haunting beauty he seeks to capture in a portrait. Will he avoid his fate? Not particularly innovative, but entertaining.

Uncanny #31 features Elizabeth Bear‘s novella “A Time to Reap“, an atypical time-travel mur­der mystery. Teenaged Kitty Whelan, appearing in a Broadway musical based on a real crime com­mitted decades before in 1978, makes a research/cast event visit to the house in which the murders actually occurred. She’s taken back to the time of the real event. Bear amusingly and acerbically juxtaposes Kitty’s surprise at various elements of the past with the girl’s alarming knowledge of what happens to the people living there. Or does she know anything? Kitty’s presence has changed the past. Paradoxes mount. Bear adroitly works it all out. Accept the premise and enjoy the often-dark ride.

In “Nutrition Facts” by D.A. Xiaolin Spires, we meet a robot that dispenses congee with flavorful nutrients attuned to the individual consumer. It starts doling out the tastes of the narrator’s late mother’s food and messages that seem to be requesting something, messages that may be from the departed mother. Considering Mom was a cybersecurity spe­cialist whose consciousness is stored, this may not be such a reach. A disquieting story.

There’s not quite enough story to Laura Anne Gilman‘s brief, atmospheric “Peridot and Rain“. A mysterious market appears, stays a few days, then disappears. Buy wisely and its products will serve you well, but be wary of foolish choices. Wish there were more. The title sums up Jenn Reese‘s clever, sweet, and also-too-brief “A Mindreader’s Guide to Surviving Your First Year at the All-Girls Superhero Academy“.

Black Flowers Blossom” by Vina Jie-Min Prasad is not short, but lacks a discernable story. It involves occult detection with a nod to Dashiell Hammett and preternatural sex that would make ol’ Dashiell blush.

Nightmare #87 offers two new stories. The narrator in Dan Stintzi‘s “Methods of Ascension” visits his brother, Robert, who has become involved in a cosmic program via YouTube vids. Old family friend Kelly is also wrapped up in this so-called Method of Ascension. Sure enough, there’s more than a glimpse of the infinite in the frozen woods and pond where they live. In the second original, “Dead Worms, Dangling“, Joanna Parypinski also visits an isolated fishing spot, this one on a river. Thirteen-year-old Milo and slightly older Buck hook something big, but they can’t land it. Could it be the legendary Backwater Beast? The under-3000 worder captures the boys and their family situations well but leaves us wondering why Buck feels he has to reel the catch in.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #292’s two new stories share a floral theme. Rowenna Miller offers a lovely sequel of sorts to Hans Christian Andersen’s “Thumbelina” with “Nameless in the Winged Court“. In Andersen’s tale, Thumbelina marries a flower-prince and is assumed to lived happily ever after. Here, Thumbelina stand-in Floret is married to the king of the flower people – already husband to seven other wives – and renamed Mayja. The after is not particularly happy. “Thumbelina” is sometimes viewed as a story of female empowerment, but Miller’s version is much truer to that theme, as the heroine finds an answer to her pain.

In “The Petals of the Godflower” by Kyle Kir­rin, a flower is god and young people suicide in sacrifice to the divine bloom. The nameless narrator, however, is not a true believer and has lived past the 20 years that are usually the maximum for self-martyrdom. Paul Tillich, the protestant theologian, famously stated that “doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith.” What will ultimately be proven by the narrator’s doubt in this dark and thoughtful story is left open.

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 February 2020 issue of Locus.

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