Rich Horton Reviews Short Fiction: Uncanny, The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories and Fantastic Americana

Uncanny 7-8/21

The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories, Charles Payseur (Lethe Press) August 2021.

Fantastic Americana, Josh Rountree (Fairwood Press) August 2021.

Uncanny’s general excellence is never surpris­ing. I was really intrigued by Shaoni C. White’s ‘‘Diamond Cuts’’, set in a world whose magic reenacting the way that magic was brought to the world – by an alchemist’s partner stealing a star and sacrificing herself. The narrator is the actress portray­ing the partner, and the story turns on the death of the actor playing the alchemist, and his replacement, who realizes the bizarre captivity he’s entered… and, with the narrator, sets upon a dangerous way out. The central idea is really cool, and truly Gothic, and the story is well written, though the ending falls somewhat flat.

C.S.E. Cooney is never less than enjoyable, and ‘‘From the Archives of the Museum of Eerie Skins: An Account’’ does not disappoint, telling of Firi Kanaphar, a wolfcaster who wanted to become an archivist… but a certain rich Warlock decided he didn’t like her and stole her skin. The results are – satisfying in context. And amusing. And apposite.

Ellen Kushner’s ‘‘Immortal Coil’’ is the very satisfying story of a certain Will, circa 1607, encoun­tering a man he thought had died long before – Kit Marlowe – and Marlowe’s description of the price he paid, and the rewards he gained, for his post-death fate, leading inevitably to a similar agonizing offer to Will. And, intriguingly, a much later offer to another author!

After all that, my favorite piece this issue is Eleanor Arnason’s ‘‘The Graveyard’’, a sly and practical story told at a purposeful remove, via the curator of a museum, to the supposed narrator (Arnason?), retelling an Icelandic farmer’s story of being haunted by the ghosts of a graveyard, offended by an American of Icelandic descent having added a cross and an iron fence…. All this is amusing but never condescending, and plainly and dryly told. There are writers one will follow wherever they go, for their voice if nothing else, and for me Arnason is one such.

A recent story collection worth your attention is The Burning Day and Other Strange Stories by Charles Payseur, who may be better known for his short fiction reviews and his Hugo Award nomina­tions as a Fan Writer. I’ve enjoyed his work in the past – particularly the short story ‘‘Undercurrents’’ included herein. This collection includes a lot of fine work dating back to 2015, and two brand new stories, of which I preferred ‘‘Door Thirteen’’, which reminded me a bit of Thomas Ligotti’s tales of workplace horror. The narrator’s workplace has 12 OSHA approved doors – and, inevitably, a mys­terious Door 13…. Does it lead to a sunlit meadow? Or… nicely, darkly, done.

Here’s one more story collection, from another writer whose work tends to have a horror tinge, Josh Rountree. Fantastic Americana is his second col­lection, and as the title suggests, it deals heavily with the American landscape, as in one of the new stories here, ‘‘Her Soul, a Dark Forest’’, told by a man about his mother, who was drawn her whole life to the mesquite forest outside her house – there’s a dark inevitability to her fate. Another new piece, ‘‘In the Teeth’’, is purely about grief, a man and his daughter are mourning the suicide of his wife; a mourning given weight by the continued gathering of other mourners about their house. These are strong and well-written stories, not quite in the modes that excite me the most, but surely very good work of their type.

Recommended Stories

‘‘The Graveyard’’, Eleanor Arnason (Uncanny 7-8/21)

‘‘Diamond Cuts’’, Shaoni C. White (Uncanny 7-8/21)

Rich Horton works for a major aerospace company in St. Louis MO. He has published over a dozen anthologies, including the yearly series The Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy from Prime Books, and he is the Reprint Editor for Lightspeed Magazine. He contributes articles and reviews on SF and SF history to numerous publications.

This review and more like it in the September 2021 issue of Locus.

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