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

The Dark 5/20, 6/20
Nightmare 6/20, 7/20
Black Static 5-6/20
Uncanny 5-6/20

It will be weeks before this sees publication. Who knows what the world will be like by then? All one can do is hope things get better and, meanwhile, find some good short dark fiction to read.

Both of the originals in The Dark #60 deal with men harming women, which – for some – may be somewhat overwhelming for one issue. In ”Sleeping in Metal and Bone” by Kristi DeMeester, Rilla has suffered five miscarriages in as many years. She wants to be a mother, but not as much as her controlling jerk of a husband wants her to have a child. Lately, Rilla has been dreaming of hooks on her fingertips and has an insatiable need for bloody beef. We’ve known since Rosemary’s Baby that such carnivorous cravings are bad maternal news, one way or another, but this isn’t a story about demon seed, and by the time we get to the brutal ending we have considerable sympathy for Rilla and her spawn. The real horror here, though, is domestic abuse, and DeMeester portrays it ruthlessly well.

Seventeen-year-old Marina, in ”Driving with Ghosts” by Clara Madrigano, sees the ghost of her sexually abusive grandfather, a decade dead, driving his Packard, the vehicle in which the old creep molested her as a small child. Turns out her mother once saw a vehicular spook herself. Years later, returning to her mom’s to escape an abusive boyfriend, Marina sees the phantom and his car again. Again, the supernatural isn’t the scary thing here, it is the evil that men do to women.

The two new stories for The Dark #61 are quite dissimilar, and both are worth reading. ”The Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball, 14 lbs.” by Jack Westlake is unique. I just discovered English author Jack Westlake last year. His work impressed me enough to select one story for my The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror and to list several others as ”recommended.” I can’t say this is my favorite story of his, but it is certainly a good read and, after reading it, I will never touch a fourteen-pound Maxo Polyester Swirl Bowling Ball. In fact, I may look askance at any bowling ball. I am confident this is the only use of a bowling ball as cursed object in all of literature.

The eponymous object in ”The Zoetrope” by Alison Littlewood becomes a vehicle through which the truth can be revealed to the story’s narrator, Frances. Frances also learns what her mother meant when she told her, ”It always goes back to the beginning.” For my taste, a few more period details would have enhanced ”The Zoetrope”, but it is still a riveting, haunting tale.

Nightmare #93 includes two originals: Ashley Deng‘s ”Dégustation” and ”We, the Folk” by G.V. Anderson. Deng’s offering is an interesting little story of fungal humanoids who live as a colony beneath an abandoned office building. The youngsters attend normal human schools where the other kids sense their difference and, for the most part, shun them. Around the time the maturing eukaryotic organisms are in college, they learn to be comfortable in their own skins… uh, cell walls.

Anderson’s tale is set in 1934. Dorothy Miller, a writer who has profited from exploiting the horrors her cousin John experienced during the Great War, is researching a book on folklore. She journeys to a village in Somerset near the Dorset border to interview Lawrence Durbin, the last man to possess the Dorset Ooser. (In real life, the Dorset Ooser was a hollow horned head worn in public parades of a sort and used to humiliate those judged to be wrongdoers. The last known Ooser mask disappeared in 1897.) Dorothy’s interview with Durbin doesn’t elicit much, but his opportunistic daughter, Edith, warns her that she will regret her curiosity about the Ooser. Anderson, as always, writes like a dream (albeit a dark one).

Fungi also play a role in one of Nightmare #94’s original stories: ”We Came Home from Hunting Mushrooms” by Adam R. Shannon. According to the theocratic president, everyone is in danger of being Forgotten, which means – more or less – that you disappear and no one remembers you ever existed. Some say you could avoid ”being Forgotten if you did certain things: if you did a great deed, or gave this person or that person money, or killed someone and sent their soul to God on your behalf.” Ben, the narrator’s friend since childhood, thinks that you will be safe if you eat a certain type of mushroom. So Ben, the narrator, Ben’s sister Mara, Mara’s boyfriend Andre, Ben’s girlfriend Hunter, and two dogs are off to a forest in a state park to find the mushrooms. Shannon manages to effectively twist and chill in 2,550 words. Neatly done.

Carlie St. George‘s ”Spider Season, Fire Season” features a woman who can form friendships with ghosts. December (AKA Dorothy), despite vowing as a child never to live with a ghost again, is forced by circumstance – poor, pregnant, and hiding from Jacob, the unborn baby’s father – to rent a haunted house. She hopes she can eventually make friends with Olivia, the ghost. In flashback, we also meet December/ Dot’s childhood friend/ghost Clara. Later, after the baby is born, Jacob shows up with kerosene and a gun. Despite the decided perils and terrors involved, it is also charming story of paranormal friendship.

Black Static #75 offers five new stories. Simon Avery begins ”The Black Paintings”: ”On the final day of his life, Lucien Halcomb’s cancer began to speak to him.” The cancer wants to leave Halcomb as it doesn’t want to join him in his grave. ”Dying is a waste of a perfectly good disease.” The cancer gives Halcomb enough energy to go out into London. They visit the Tate Modern, which is holding a retrospective of noted artist Halcomb’s work; a performance of Beethoven’s piano trios; and an unusual brothel (the disease’s choice). The artist learns about himself. It’s an excellent story to make one ponder.

In ”The Stonemason” by Danny Rhodes, a stonemason working on a sculpture for a cathedral is running far behind on his work and his relationship with the mother of his daughter, Ava, is crumbling. His nerves are shot. Then he senses a malign, unnatural presence near his work area. Two days later, Ava is diagnosed with a serious disease. He senses more malevolent spirits.

He worked in a place that held death at its core. It was present in everything. Once it had been a comfort to him, made him feel time was not linear but circular instead, so that everything was part of what had come before and what was yet to be. Now though, with Ava on his mind, such thoughts terrified him, as though there would be no escaping of losing her, just an endless spiral of recurring despair.

An anguishing story well worth reading.

Roger and Nora Welsh – in ”Asleep in the Deep End” by Cody Goodfellow – retire to a house in a semi-tropical country, but nothing is relaxing about their new life in their gated community. Roger is furious that their newly built pool has been ruined by local shrubbery, especially the neighbors’ Peruvian pepper tree. He obsessively cleans and services the pool himself; just one aspect of a life now full of rage. Nora drinks. Things get deadly and weird. The story zips along and keeps your attention.

Daniel Carpenter‘s ”Roots” has a superb concept and is effectively told, but there’s not enough to the story. While digging at a construction site, Dennis finds the hand of a dead child. The job is shut down while the discovery is investigated. Dennis moves on to another job. Oddly, he never hears anything in the media about the gruesome unearthing, or about the other wild stories about similar exhumations. But things are far stranger than a mere lack of public knowledge.

A know-it-all is hired as a research fellow in ”Except for the Down Below” by Kristina Ten. Constantly one-upping his colleagues with his vast knowledge makes the fellow quite unpopular, so he becomes a homebody. Then, ”all of a sudden, there was one thing the know-it-all didn’t know: why was there a chocolate cake in the middle of his garden? The mystery scratched an itch the know-it-all hadn’t realized he had. Who, after all, didn’t want to know everything?” Other things appear in his garden. He begins to question how much he doesn’t know and dives into the unraveling of this mystery. This is an enjoyably quirky, somewhat absurdist, quite original horror story.

Uncanny #34 presents five originals. Arkady Martine packs a great deal into the short ”A Being Together Amongst Strangers”. The narrator is a 22nd-century tech-assisted conflict resolution specialist in New York City. ”It does take blood, to make a city. That’s part of the problem. We haven’t figured out how not to feed ourselves on ourselves.” Her job is to be a ”repository of intercultural rage” and defuse it, but she encounters such while commuting and can’t use her tech. I love the ideas and the setting here and admire not only the tension Martine so quickly builds but everything she manages to pack into the story. (By the way, it is also a ghost story.) I simply want more.

A.T. Greenblatt‘s charming ”Burn or the Episodic Life of Sam Wells as a Super” is fun but not lightweight. Acquiring a superpower is common, but controlling one is difficult. Lack of control results in embarrassment and is often dangerous. Sam, whose superpower is self-combustion, wants to be at least somewhat heroic (and have a secure job). His ”talent” gets him onto the Super Team, but his role it is not exactly what he hoped it would be. It also quickly becomes apparent that other supers – even the most successful – may not ”lessen the pain” of the public so much as ”just redistribute it.”

Suzanne Walker‘s ”We Chased the Sirens” is more poetry than prose. It’s a dark and lovely girl-adventure tale of wooden ships and discovery. A wedding dress conveys – literally – a woman’s emotions in Meg Elison‘s ”Dresses like White Elephants” and the recipient is a drag queen. It’s an interesting concept commendably told. I would have liked a bit more context on what the Hymen Games, in which the queens annually participate, are as they seem to be far more than just a beauty/talent competition.

The narrator of Jennifer Marie Brissett‘s ”Through the Veil” is a scientist experimenting with high-energy subatomic particles whose project is shut down and their life’s work ended. The researcher has more than a hint of ”mad scientist” and megalomania about them. Although they feel guilt over it, the scientist steals the portable particle accelerator they designed and consequently ”crosses over” (maybe) into other dimensions. Returning to the ”real world” fills them with ”memories in saturated color washes that ran, forming inky puddles at the bottom of my mind.” There’s a core of a good story here, but I feel it could have used bit more development.

Emma Törzs‘s ”High in the Clean Blue Air” didn’t quite work for me. Still, this is my first encounter with Törzs’s work and I look forward to reading more from her. Elena is Alice’s oldest friend. Although they haven’t seen each other in almost five years, Alice has a big secret and feels she can only stay one night at the cabin on Lake Superior where they meet. Part of the mystery is that Alice isn’t exactly human. Elena picks up a hitchhiker (really?) who is exactly who Alice fears the most; someone she did wrong a decade before. Things go very bad. I felt what should have been a detail – hair loss – was a little overdone and couldn’t accept Alice’s particular non-humanity nor understand why she did what she did, as it makes her a shallow vengeful person, which I don’t think the author intended.

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 August 2020 issue of Locus.

Locus Magazine, Science Fiction FantasyWhile you are here, please take a moment to support Locus with a one-time or recurring donation. We rely on reader donations to keep the magazine and site going, and would like to keep the site paywall free, but WE NEED YOUR FINANCIAL SUPPORT to continue quality coverage of the science fiction and fantasy field.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *