Paula Guran Reviews Short Fiction: Uncanny, Apex, The Dark, Nightmare, Fantasy, and Baffling

Uncanny 1-2/21
Apex #122
The Dark 1/21, 2/21
Nightmare 1/21, 2/21
Fantasy 2/21, 3/21
Baffling 1/21

Uncanny #38 is a strong issue. Sam J. Miller‘s “Tyrannosaurus Hex” posits a future in which alternative realities can be all too real. The story is particularly chilling (and resonates as true) with children as the “early adaptors.” “A House Full of Voices Is Never Empty” by Miyuki Jane Pinckard also deals with reality of a sort. Two sisters flee the chaos of Vietnam as the US withdraws. The elder is consoled by familiar objects that speak to her; the younger does not have that comfort but is also “free to imagine a new life.” As time passes, Pinckard offers a beautiful perspective on the solace and burden of memories. The children in Nicole Kornher-Stace‘s “Pathfinding!” are the subjects of torturous and increasingly fatal simulations designed to genetically modify them into superweapons. Subject 06’s strength and intel­ligence are inspiring, despite the chilling scenario. In “Distribution” by Paul Cornell, the world – or at least part of it – has survived a semi-apocalypse to become the “New Situation.” It is fascinating. I grasp the basic plot – Shan, a person who grew up in the New Situation is sent to evaluate Dr. Kay, an older recluse, who may be a danger to himself or others – and appreciate Shan’s role as a citizen of the new era. But Dr. Kay’s experiment in individuality and the multiple aspects of such is beyond me. I suspect the fault is mine and not the story’s. In Christopher Caldwell‘s “Femme and Sundance“, a couple of queer hustlers visit a bruja and obtain magic masks to help in a bank robbery. Of course there’s a cost, but it proves somewhat different than expected. Great charac­ters and great fun. In “Beyond the Doll Forest” by Marissa Lingen, a nanny joins a household where toys grow “of their own volition” and her young charge believes in curses. It’s charming and haunting at the same time; the Norwegian setting provides added interest.

Also strong, Apex #122 offers six new works of short fiction. “Barefoot and Midnight” by Sheree Renée Thomas takes place after the real-life violence in Memphis of May 1866. The fictional Dusa uses voodoo to take bloody revenge after white people destroy her beloved Freedman’s School. This is short but searing historical horror. A.C. Wise‘s “The Amazing Exploding Women of the Early Twentieth Century” also harkens back to the past: Coney Island, 1906. Cecily tells the story of Gracie and Cat, a young woman who appears in films “designed to make women look useless and small.” Cat burns without being con­sumed. All in all, a lovely story, but (again) I’m not sure I fully understand it. Barton Aikman‘s science fictional “Black Box of the Terraworms” introduces terraworms (autonomous terraforming machines) programmed to prepare what is thought to be a never-inhabited planet. They discover forgotten gods and history. The terraworms also experience emotions one assumes their (human?) creators did not know they could possess. After an unknown (and probably unfathomable) period of time, future settlers will make their way to the planet and discover a black box that will tell the story of it all. This one will stay with me for quite a while. In Annie Neugebauer‘s “If Those Ragged Feet Won’t Run“, the quiet of the night is a fear­some thing for Bethesda and her infant daughter, who are trapped outside the safety of their village. Any noise will bring a deadly nightbird upon them, and a six-week-old baby is impossible to silence. A fight for survival between Bethesda and a nightbird – also a mother – ensues. Readers will find themselves holding their collective breath as Neugebauer artfully builds the tension and crafts a fine story. “A Love That Burns Hot Enough to Last: Deleted Scenes From a Documentary” by Sam J. Miller introduces Ti: legend, icon, diva, “the woman whose voice was called a ‘national treasure.”‘ Her life is destroyed then regained, but her voice is gone. That’s the story everyone knows. But another truth emerges as a fan, a back-up singer, an employee, and a faith-based family-values advocate each tell her story. Music is, indeed, magic, and so is love, and Miller beauti­fully conveys some of the magic of both. This is interactive fiction best viewed online in a browser.

The Dark has dropped reprints and is now offering four original stories per issue. Issue #68 starts off with “The Van Etten House” by Carrie Laben. Collectibles dealers Kelly and Laura find some strange dolls in the titular house and things get weird. It’s a disturbing premise and Laben builds the tension well, but the story is over too quickly. No one sees what Okey sees in his woman, Nkoli, in “Love for Ashes” by Frances Ogamba. A seer warns that she will destroy him and everything he values; only marriage can calm her rage. But the marriage comes too late. The relationship results in multiple tragedies and grief. In “There, in the Woods” by Clara Madrigano, Lucy’s husband, Nick, went missing in the woods almost a year earlier. Now a teen boy has gone missing in the same woods – the same woods Lucy feels consumed her parents. Nicely atmospheric and leaves no questions unanswered. “Each Night an Adaptation” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu tells us, “The women of Osamudia family always sleep in their dead’s house immediately after they die in order to let them enter the afterlife properly, but Destiny’s mother can’t bear it.” So Destiny stays there in her place. The house “works” on her, and her mother eventually explains why Destiny is the one who must live there. Creepy.

Four more in The Dark #69: Suzan Palumbo paints a rich picture of the tragedy of a child gone missing and the remaining sister’s adaptation in “Laughter Among the Trees“. Unfortunately, the ending depends on a secret kept for decades suddenly and conveniently revealed. Kay Chro­nister‘s stories are often difficult to describe and “The Yoke of the Aspens” is one of those. Both dreamlike and nightmarish, the tale entrances as the truth – eventually – is more or less revealed. In “One Last Broken Thing” by Aimee Ogden, Liv lives with her curmudgeonly father on an acreage with fields full of the castoffs of others: “bones of houses, cars, machines. Sleeping giants.” The father, who shoots most any animal about, stymies the possibility of her escape to college. An effec­tive story. Priya Sridhar‘s “A Resting Place for Dolls” is more of a vignette than a story and, again, I’m not at all sure I understand it. Nydia and her friends are saddened by the suicide of Anthony Bourdain. She makes her grandmother’s cake for them – which had once been a cure for sadness – and, as her grandmother had, crafts dolls to help them. It’s worthwhile reading that perhaps you can interpret better than this reviewer.

Starting with #101, Nightmare Magazine has also dropped reprint fiction. It now publishes an original piece of flash fiction and a poem along with two new full-length stories in each issue. E.A. Petricone‘s “We, the Girls Who Did Not Make It” is what I call a “dead girls” story. (There have been a lot of them in the last few years.) A number of women or girls – abused, tortured, raped, killed – speak to the reader from beyond the grave. Usually, some form of retribution takes place. In this case, there are fourteen of them and they confront society’s fascination with serial killers and, to a lesser extent, the killers’ victims. Even though these ghosts claim they can do nothing, in the end, they do. Stephen Graham Jones‘s “Hairy Legs and All” is 1500 stream-of-consciousness words contemplating life and spiders that may or may not be hiding in a pair of long-unworn shoes. Erica Ruppert‘s flash fiction “And Lucy Fell” is less than 600 words of madness and warped desired. All three are nice reading, but not exceptional.

Nightmare #102 begins with Woody Dismukes‘s “A Cast of Liches“. (A lich – from Old Eng­lish līċ meaning “corpse” – is a type of undead creature.) In this case, three liches observe as a dead boy tries to visit his mother, haunts a police officer involved in his killing, moves along to confront the racist wife of the cop who killed him, and wreaks terrible vengeance on the murderous cop himself. It’s a well-intentioned but not entirely effective story confronting racial injustice. The life of the woman in Joanna Parypinski‘s “It Accumulates” has become cluttered and disorganized. She decides to start tidying things up, but things don’t turn out exactly as Marie Kondo would expect. Dark, yes, but also a delight. The issue’s flash piece (1108 words) “That Which Crawls from Dark Soil” by Michael Kelly evokes both the lonely darkness of death and the bright, if brief, joy of youth.

Four pieces of fiction for Fantasy #64, two quite brief. Innocent Chizaram Ilo‘s “Flight” is the cap­tivating (but uncomfortable) story of life and death among some parrots of the fishing town of Selemku. In “Kisser” by David James Brock, 34-year-old Bragg loses a tooth as he sleeps. Under anesthesia at the dentist’s office, he suffers another mysterious tooth loss. To prevent further loss, he decides not to sleep. Things get interestingly surreal from there. “Of Course You Screamed” – flash fiction by Sha­rang Biswas – about the dark evolution of a witch abandoned on an island, contains quite a bit of story for so few words. Shingai Njeri Kagunda‘s poetic “Blackman’s Flight in Four Parts” is piercing flash fiction dealing with the enslaved, both dead and still living, disposed of from a ship at sea. Memorable.

Fantasy #65: The party is not going well for teen Izzy in “The Code for Everything” by McKinley Valentine. After going outside to “get some air” she starts chatting with a cat. She’s transported to a place where the rules are more explicit – all in less than 1,500 words. Cute fae tale. Mona, in “Close Enough to Divine” by Donyae Coles, is another awkward girl at another party. But she’s not like all the other girls. The wings are the first clue. Cute, no fae. M. Shaw, in “Man vs. Bomb“, writes of a world in which deer are the betting spectators as a man races a bomb and then is confronted with a choice. “[T]his is the moment when we will see if you really are a winner, or just another bomb waiting to happen.” Yes, humankind has much to answer for. In “Arenous” by Hal Y. Zhang, pieces of what seem to be yellow plastic start to flake from Sarah’s head. No one, including the doctor, seems concerned. Things get worse: she seems to be turning to sand. Well, we’ve all been there, haven’t we? Clever.

Co-editor Craig L. Gidney aptly describes the eight flash stories in Baffling #2 as being about “necroman­cers and poets and monsters, experimental stories, tales that nod towards the Big Idea ethos of ’70s sci­ence fiction and sweetly magical realist fiction. Body horror stories and sexy stories. In short, it spans the breadth of weird speculative fiction.” I particularly appreciated A.B. Young‘s demon lover tale “Peat Moss and Oil for Burning” and “Vanity Among Worms” by Brent Lambert, in which Cletus visits a “seedy nightclub offering up some bizarre unique magical experience.”

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 April 2021 issue of Locus.

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