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

Uncanny 9-10/20
Black Static 9-10/20
The Dark 9/20, 10/20
Nightmare 10/20, 11/20 9/2/20

Uncanny #36 offers five rewarding originals. T. Kingfisher‘s terrific science fictional retelling of Hansel and Gretel, “Metal Like Blood in the Dark“, is a grim but triumphant tale.

The engaging “Anchorage” by Samantha Mills involves a spacefaring crew beset with guilt, a librarian of sorts who also serves as a confessor of sorts, and a narrator that is not what it appears to be.

Kenneth Schneyer‘s thought-provoking “Laws of Impermanence” is, on its surface, a tale about family inheritance, but the premise merely allows the consideration of the question: What if written text shifted over time of its own accord?

Lavie Tidhar‘s clever “Juvenilia” takes place circa 1952. A young woman takes the job of caretaker of an “old, near-abandoned Elizabethan mansion called Wildfell Hall.” The name of the place is the first clue the Brontës are involved, and the story’s title provides another. Marie Brennan‘s “The City of the Tree” is an enjoyable mini-epic that takes place in the world of her Varekai series. “Cahuei was the City of the Tree. For that to end was inconceivable.” But the immense, ancient, revered cypress is dying. If the tree falls, “Cahuei might be no more.”

James Yu‘s poignant “In the Space of Twelve Minutes” explores love and space with spousal “avatars” supplied both for taikonauts on a Mars mission and their Earth-bound partners.

All five original stories in Black Static #76 are worthwhile reading. Novelette “Fatal Memory” by Rhonda Pressley, however, stands out. Old age can be a terrifying place in which to live. Aside from physical failings, memory is dubitable, and, although it can comfort, it can also torture. Veit’s conclusion is double-edged: horrific yet logical, which makes it even more terrifying.

Lucie McKnight‘s creepily dark “Resting Bitch Face” shows middle age isn’t a pleasant place either. Her heroine escapes through self-mutilation.

Phantasmagoria” by Abi Haynes features a college-age woman involved in a dramatic produc­tion. It somewhat proves a theory posited within it: “every story about a woman’s body is a horror story.”

One of four spliff-smoking, trespassing teens disappears after a psychopathic caretaker pursues him in “Nights at the Factory” by Tim Cooke. It turns into a truly harrowing tale.

In Stephen Hargadon‘s compelling novelette “The Stationery Cupboard“, Matthew Bryne is ready – after 25 years at the same firm – to start a new position. A man from Material Resources interrupts his reminiscing and farewells to demand an accounting for every office supply he’s ever used. For lack of a better description, all I can say is that Byrne enters the Twilight Zone.

The Dark #64: Set on an island that is now mostly under water – “a nervous system of mangroves and ex-skyscrapers turned merely superficial rooftops” – “Call Them Children” by Wenmimareba Klobah Collins grabs you from the get-go and never loosens its grip. Environmental disaster is not the only threat, though. Mama Dlo – part woman and part snake – is taking the children. Young Yuya’s friend, Camelia, has been taken and the girl intends to get her back. I’ll be looking for more of Collins’ work.

The Goatkeeper’s Harvest” by Tobi Ogundi­ran, the issue’s other original, is not as impressive. The elements are there – a rural family endangered by goatlike creatures – but the tension and ultimate fright of the situation is lacking.

The Dark #65 offers three originals. Shari Paul‘s entertaining “Stretch” is set in Trinidad. Supersti­tious rumor purports that there is a jumbie (a ma­levolent spirit) on a span of road where vehicular accidents (and deaths) regularly occur. Jenaiah becomes a believer when her brother Jervon dies in a crash there. Armed with salt and a cutlass, brave and determined Jenaiah decides to fight the evil that possesses the Stretch.

Gabriela Santiago casts Minnesota’s Mall of America as a wendigo in “The Wendigo at the End of the Blue Line” and plays on the stress between the haves (like the mall patrons) and the have-nots (service workers and the downtrodden in general) of American society. Half Anishinaabe and half Black, Prospirity is a college student who works in the wendigo, despite her tribal family’s disdain. She worries she will succumb to the greed she sees around her or, perhaps worse, never gain enough security from her struggle to make it matter. Prospirity, though she doesn’t yet understand it, is driven by need not avarice. This is a compelling if caustic story that reminds the reader that reality and the truth of history are shrouded in darkness that cannot be ignored.

Told in the form of a letter of unknown purpose to an equally unknown recipient, “A Few Words From the New Tenant of House” by Rob Costello is less satisfying than the other two tales. A horror lover moves into an infamous “haunted house,” thereby escaping an abusive mother, acquiring an abusive daemon lover, and hiding from the horror of the world. Unlike Santiago, Costello does not succeed in showing reality is far more frightening than fiction.

Not Us” by David Tallerman, in Nightmare #97, is a profound and unsettling story of a woman who feels she is both “other” and one of “them.” Her husband’s presence is nothing more than a “smeared fingerprint” she wishes she could “burn away.” But she understands he “has value; his value is that one day he will be they.”

Adam-Troy Castro‘s “The Monkey Trap” tells of Amber, who needs an obscure novel by “a fussy and now almost completely forgotten nineteenth-century author” to complete her dissertation. She can only obtain a copy by a visit to an eccentric private dealer whose home is packed with an immense num­ber of apparently unorganized books. He does have a system, though, one he reveals to Amber. This leads Amber to a life-shattering epiphany. A well-crafted story that keeps the reader’s attention, but I couldn’t see why Amber would react as she did.

Nightmare #98 also offers two originals. In “Ti­ger’s Feast” by KY Bryski, pre-teen Emma copes by “feeding” her “badness” to a “tiger” in the park. Mocked and derided by her peers, her life is miser­able. When they discover she is gay, it is obvious things will be even worse. This is an acutely painful story sharpened further by its truth.

In Kurt Fawver‘s “Introduction to the Horror Story, Day 1“, students learn how a horror story can achieve transcendence. It’s a predictable tale that still says something about horror lit.

Stephen Graham Jones is having a very good year as far as publication of outstanding work. Short story “Wait for Night” at (9/2/20) joins his masterful novel The Only Good Indians and novella Night of the Mannequins as further proof of undeniable talent. Chessup, laboring in a creek bed outside Boulder CO finds himself in the midst of a feud between two ancient vampires. Unpredictable, droll, and exceptional.

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 OH, near enough to her grandchildren to frequently be indulgent.

This review and more like it in the December 2020 issue of Locus.

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