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The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2014 edited by Paula Guran

September 11, 2014 Leave a comment

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The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2014 edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2014) begins auspiciously with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem, which is a magnificent piece of atmosphere writing, filled with menace. All that happens is that a mother and her son stand by a field of wheat, but it’s an unforgettable experience. “Blue Amber” by David J. Schow takes us to a place where the bridgehead has been established and answers the question of how best to spread the infection. It’s a raw adrenaline fight and flight. “The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed drops the pace slightly with a group of girl scouts that goes AWOL on a forested mountainside. Later a bus tour brings some rich men hoping they’ll be able to find some of those girls to rescue. The result is probably not what either side would have wanted. “The Good Husband” by Nathan Ballingrud flirts rather admirably with the distinction between a zombie and a vampire as a husband comes upon his wife as she’s committing suicide (again). This time, however, he decides not to save her. Except sometimes, wives don’t take being ignored lying down. “The Soul in the Bell Jar” by K. J. Kabza has a great-niece coming to visit her uncle in the Gothic splendour of the family manse while her parents go away on holiday. Here she’s not to touch anything and to avoid the vivifieds. The house cats and horses nay be safe to interact with. The result is a singularly over-the-top romp through the rotting pile, discovering secrets as she goes. “The Creature Recants” by Dale Bailey is the delightfully unexpected backstory to the shooting of the original film version of Creature from the Black Lagoon. It has a pleasing sense of humour, tinged with sadness.

Nights grow long in the Alaskan tooth in “Termination Dust” by Laird Barron. Here we’re playing in the Ripper sandbox as different versions of what might have been play out across the years. As always with this author, an intriguing game is being played. “Postcards from Abroad” by Peter Atkins succeeds because it’s completely naturalistic. The young man with a heart of gold from Liverpool puts down supernatural nasties when they get to be a nuisance. The dry wit is a delight. “Phosphorous” by Veronica Schanoes is historical horror detailing the appalling conditions in which the matchmakers worked in Victorian London. When the phosphorous got into their bones, death followed quite quickly. “A Lunar Labyrinth” by Neil Gaiman is a pleasing story that creeps up on you, as if you were walking through a maze and suddenly felt you might not be entirely alone. “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlín R. Kiernan is an intriguing piece of metafiction with literary overtones as our movie critic sits through a classic piece of horror and thinks about the review she will write.

“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson is a terrific piece of classic fantasy showing the need to follow simple rules to the letter when it comes to dealing with shades. It’s a short masterclass in how to write dark fantasy. “The Plague” by Ken Liu is short science fiction at its best as the nanobots prove they know what’s best for survival. “The Gruesome Affair of the Electric Blue Lightning” by Joe R. Lansdale answers the simple question of what August Dupin would make of the Necronomicon should he be able to lay hands upon it and, more importantly, read from it. Watch out Old Ones, the Great Detective is barring the way! “Let My Smile Be Your Umbrella” by Brian Hodge has our first-person narrator track down a girl whose celebrity depends on a slow-motion suicide attempt. By coincidence, when he arrives and first sees her, he discovers there’s so much more to learn about her. Perhaps he’ll be endlessly fascinated. “Air, Water and the Grove” by Kaaron Warren is a very elegant science fiction story of the metamorphosis that occurs when the rocket bringing back samples from Saturn is destroyed in our atmosphere. It may all look beautiful, but living that life is a one-way trip to the grove.

“A Little of the Night” by Tanith Lee considers whether a vacuum of nothingness is comparable to a vampire, sucking the positives of life into the nothingness beyond. If such is not too poetical a fancy, how would you fight such a phenomenon? The answer here is rather beautifully explored in true mythic style. “A Collapse of Horses” by Brian Evenson is a Schrödinger’s cat story. Following an accident in which his head was injured, our hero has difficulty in distinguishing what’s real, e.g. are the fallen horses dead? This shows how you should deal with this uncertainty. “Pride” by Glen Hirshberg is an interesting story about collectors and what drives them to put the collection together. It also deals with the complex situation in which a collector loses an item from the collection. “Our Lady of Ruins” by Sarah Singleton wonders what happens when some people disappear for years after they wander into the woods. This is an intriguing take on the fey trope and asks whether love can transcend separation if memory returns. “The Marginals” by Steve Duffy finds a different way of exploring the nature of existence. Some people seem to leave our conventional society and are only visible when they stay too long in one place or are drawn to a particular place. Perhaps they are dead. “Dark Gardens” by Greg Kurzawa is a remarkably effective piece. The image of the hatch as an opening into our word and what lies beneath is managed magnificently. “Rag and Bone” by Priya Sharma is another piece of history but, this time, we’re in an alternate reality and the poor are bought by the rich for their organs. It’s always been a tough life in Liverpool. “The Slipway Gray” by Helen Marshall reflects the fact death can come in many form and, sometimes, if it’s your lucky day, it passes you by. “To Die for Moonlight” by Sarah Monette is a nicely judged story of two families, both cursed, who speculate that if they intermarry, the curses may cancel each other out. Obviously our hero knows what his curse is but what exactly troubles the young lady?

“Cuckoo” by Angela Slatter sees a body-hopping, vengeance-seeking creature find a victim and seek out the man who had killed her. Now there’s just one thing she wants or needs from him before she kills him. “Fishwife” by Carrie Vaughn draws its strength from the inexorable predicability of the outcome. People who are so desperate always pay the price. “The Dream Detective” by Lisa Tuttle is outstandingly intelligent as a man meets the detective both in the real world and in his dreams. At first, there seems to be no problem, but that’s before the dreams take a darker turn. “Event Horizon” by Sunny Moraine is such a simple idea but it’s presented with significant verve such that, just as in science fiction stories when the space ship is on the cusp of a black hole, the ship and its passengers are never able to pull free. “Moonstruck” by Karin Tidbeck indicates a collision between the metaphorical and the literal as a young girl becomes convinced the moon’s strange behaviour is somehow linked to her first period. “The Ghost Makers” by Elizabeth Bear is a classical fantasy of wizards and high magic as two “warriors” fight to prevent the sorcerer from adding to his collection of souls. It’s beautifully written with a poetic cast and an unflinching eye. “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee continues in high fantasy mode with a spy recovering a lexicon from a magician only to find the words may presage an invasion. The semiotic question, of course, is what happens to the language of magic over time and, if it does change or evolve, how would you keep track of it. The answer here is delightfully elegant. All you have to do is understand the true nature of the word “defeat”.

When looking back at this anthology, one fact stands out. Darkness can be found in any situation whether it be historical fact, fantastical or science fictional. So although the title suggests a limitation to fantasy and/or horror, we actually get a demonstration of the diverse range of situations in which the world of the rational slips away, leaving only fear and menace behind. I’m indebted to Paul Guran as editor in producing such a fine assembly of stories. Many deserve to be shortlisted for awards as recognition for their quality. Of course, I might cavil at one or two of the choices where the plot doesn’t quite cohere or the execution is overlong, but such differences in opinion are inevitable in an anthology this long. This does not prevent me from recommending this anthology as superb value for money for anyone who enjoys the darker side of fiction.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Zombies: More Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran

August 20, 2014 1 comment

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Zombies: More Recent Dead edited by Paula Guran (Prime Books, 2014) begins with a fairly robust defence of the subgenre which, for better or worse, seems to have become essential to modern culture through The Walking Dead and other television series.

“The Afflicted” by Matthew Johnson takes us on an emotional journey as a nurse tours the camps where the infected wait to turn. She does her best to keep them healthy and, on her way back to the Ranger’s camp, she rescues a young girl from three who have changed. This is going to slow her down, particularly when the girl’s grandmother also joins them. At some level, we always do our best to care for those we love. “Dead Song” by Jay Wilburn (reprinted in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five edited by Ellen Datlow) is one of these delightfully ambiguous stories which leaves us guessing where the musicologists “found” the music they recorded. “Iphigenia in Aulis” by Mike Carey is a wonderful story that arises because the Religious Right insists on an amendment to the Constitution marking the start of life as the moment of conception. That means the innocent babies have to be rescued whenever their zombie mothers are killed. Well, surprisingly, some of them are and this is what happens when one of the rescued bonds with one of her jailers. “Pollution” by Don Webb may be set in Japan but it’s actually a universal story about the quality of life those more marginalised members of any society can expect. The zombie element is pretty cool as well with the virus and subsequent use of those infected having a macabre commercial logic.

“Becca at the End of the World” by Shira Lipkin is short and to the point. It may be predictable, but it still manages to pack a bit of a punch with the last line. “The Naturalist” by Maureen F. McHugh (collected in After the Apocalypse) gives us a prisoner who survives to learn a little about zombies and their lifestyle (tinfoil figures in this). In fact, they prove a lot more interesting than the other inmates and he can make them useful in his study of the zombies. “Selected Sources for the Babylonian Plague of the Dead (572-571 BCE)” by Alex Dally MacFarlane brings us news of an old outbreak and hope for a defence against the undead. Which brings us to “What Maisie Knew” by David Liss and the terrible contortions the guilty must go through to stave off the possibility of discovery. This has a surprising sense of humour as Maisie finally finds the right person to talk to.

“Rocket Man” by Stephen Graham Jones answers a question that’s been bothering baseball fans for years. If a ball hits a zombie and doesn’t fall to ground, is that a good catch and is the batter out? “The Day the Music Died” by Joe McKinney explores the old truism that the best thing that can ever happen to a rock star is that he or she dies. Record sales go ballistic as everyone remembers how good he or she was. Well, this is only a little different if slightly more entertainingly manic. “The Children’s Hour” by Marge Simon is a short poem to celebrate mother coming home. “Delice” by Holly Newstein is a traditional voodoo zombie tale of justice claimed when society had turned its eyes away. It’s good to see the old ideas stand up so well against the new. “Trail of Dead” by Joanne Anderton gives us the chance to consider why someone would want to raise the dead, and what qualities a person would have to have to kill both the undead and those who raised them. In entertaining stories like this, sometimes, you get a match.

“The Death and Life of Bob” by William Jablonsky is an outstanding story of office life in which the religious zealot is confronted by evidence incompatible with her faith. When bell, book and candle fail to do the trick, perhaps she should resort to more extreme measures. At the very least, this should provide a better rug for the survivors to admire. “Stemming the Tide” by Simon Strantzas gives us the chance to consider where the dead might come from. Of course, it could be from the past. But suppose, just suppose, it was from our future. Would that make any difference to the result? “Those Beneath the Bog” by Jacques L. Condor (Maka Tai Meh) transfers the threat to North America in which the old Indian ways give the chance of salvation, but the young have been corrupted by the White Man’s ways and so they will go to their doom. It’s surprising how much the change of culture and locale invigorates the plot. “What Still Abides” by Marie Brennan takes us into Anglo Saxon times with one of these annoying bodies that just will not stay in the ground. “Jack and Jill” by Jonathan Maberry is a remarkably effective piece of atmospheric writing as the family on the not remote enough farm gets caught between a storm threatening to bring down the levee and a crowd of dead neighbours. “In the Dreamtime of Lady Resurrection” by Caitlín R. Kiernan nicely captures Gothic romance as the ever-inquisitive scientist seeks first death and then reanimation. Except there’s one small possibility he neglected to consider: that she may not have come back alone. “Rigormarole” by Michael A. Arnzen offers a slightly different way of spreading the infection. “Kitty’s Zombie New Year” by Carrie Vaughn has a gatecrasher at a party in Denver give Kitty a different way of starting the New Year. The most pleasing feature of this story is the tone of normality. Hey, perhaps, it’s a zombie. Let’s see what Google has to say.

“The Gravedigger of Konstan Spring” by Genvieve Valentine shows a practical community way off the beaten track in the far north, recognising the value of good work and the need for people who can fit in. This produces a delightful story as the new gravedigger, a perfectionist, finds himself challenged. “Chew” by Tamsyn Muir is an effective tale of revenge best served cold with a dish of gum. “’Til Death Do Us Part” by Shaun Jeffrey deals with the perennial problem faced by husbands who have buried their wives only to find them coming home again. Locking them in a cupboard is somewhat undignified, but when they are dead, who’s going to complain? “There Is No “E” in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You or We” by Roxane Gay gives us the perfect answer to the age-old question: what must a woman do when every fibre of her body wants to possess just that one man? “What Once We Feared” by Carrie Ryan challenges us to decide how long we would want to live if we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by the undead. What would be the point of surviving?

“The Harrowers” by Eric Gregory takes us into a world of fortified cities surrounded by a wilderness of zombie bears, wolves and humans. Here one man suddenly sees the chance to have a real life outside the walls. All he has to do is die according to city records. “Resurgam” by Lisa Mannetti sees a parallel between past and current events as a medical student dissecting a body finds himself at the centre of what may be a zombie outbreak. Perhaps his research can show how best to respond. “I Waltzed with a Zombie” by Ron Goulart sees a B-movie scriptwriter with an impeccable record get the inside dope on how to complete a movie when your star lead has died. Except his eyewitness account is just not quite up to the minute and he’s pre-empted by the real news. This is great fun. “Aftermath” by Joy Kennedy-O’Neill is thoughtfully brilliant. If time and space permitted, I would write a lot about it. “A Shepherd of the Valley” by Maggie Slater gives us a different way of reinventing the undead so they have some degree of social utility even though, as the title suggests, they have no more intelligence than sheep. “The Day the Saucers Came” by Neil Gaiman is the day you sit waiting for that call.

“Love, Resurrected” by Cat Rambo is very elegant high fantasy in which a sorcerer reanimates a great general to serve him for as long as he desires (which might be a very long time). “Present” by Nicole Kornher-Stace makes a nice point about the tense authors use to tell their stories and then fast-forwards to the moment of sacrifice. “The Hunt: Before, and the Aftermath” by Joe R. Lansdale changes the biter-bit trope into the shooter-shoot trope as a couple try to work out their marital problems. And then comes the payoff. At least he might have thought it worth waiting for. “Bit Rot” by Charles Stross has us on a starship with the crew in slowtime when the power fails. This is, to put it mildly, unfortunate, particularly because the crew have just been exposed to a big burst of radiation. When it comes to triage, the dead are the last in line for treatment. They are not going to get any worse. But if any were to wake up, they would be hungry.

I admit to being overwhelmed by this evidence of my own ignorance. Here was I thinking the zombie story was dead and buried, only to find this anthology full of stories of such range and quality. And most of these stories are only a few years old. There’s still good work being done on old and trusted tropes. So thank you Paula Guran. The pennies have fallen from my eyes and I can now shamble forward to seek out more stories such as this for intellectual nourishment. Zombies: More Recent Dead is great value for money.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories by Adam-Troy Castro

June 17, 2014 3 comments

Her Husband'a Hands

Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories by Adam-Troy Castro (Prime Books, 2014) is a top class collection from one of the best prose stylists around. “Arvies” starts the ball rolling with a story presented as though it was an article in a periodical of some kind. The text is divided into sections with headings to act as signposts. It predicates a world in which money, power and control has been seized by the unborn foetuses. They are the living. If anyone has the misfortune to be born, they are considered dead and worth nothing unless a foetus buys the body. They see the dead as nothing more than convenient containers in which they can reside. But the foetus who is the protagonist of this story decides to do something wholly perverse. She decides to engineer the pregnancy of her current body so she can experience giving birth. Such notoriety! Such extraordinary abuse of convention! And then, of course, there’s the problem of what to do with the dead bodies. “Her Husband’s Hands” deals with a future in which we still fight wars and the technology has advanced to the point where, no matter how little survives of the body, it can be kept alive and wedded to the backed-up personality. Now all the spouses have to do is adjust to their new lives with the various body parts shipped back from the front (a confusing image, but you get what I mean). “Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs” is a nicely allegorical piece that offers an alternative to the dry tedium of modern life. At its best, fulfilling the routine produces the money necessary to support the lifestyle we’ve come to prefer. At its worst, the comforts of life disappear in moments of horrific madness. Perhaps it’s a single homicide or society rebels against the pacific boredom by engaging in acts of terrorism or a war. But suppose you could take a “place” and structure it so the inhabitants could enjoy nine days of abandon with the tenth giving the experience of mayhem and death. Would people opt for nine days of Paradise for the price of one day in Hell?

Adam-Troy Castro

Adam-Troy Castro

“Our Human” sees us back in the same universe inhabited by the redoubtable Andrea Cort with a story of a group of four outlaws who set off into the jungle on a nameless world to track down a human monster for whom there is a big reward. It elegantly forces the reader to consider what constitutes such a severe social sin to justify expulsion from their own race, and what might tempt other races to accept this criminal into their midst. For example, what might be rape to one race, might be normal biological activity to another. So is it easier for one race to overlook a sin because both the being and its behaviour is alien to them, or is there something more essentially forgiving about some races that they are prepared to see good even in the worst of beings and to offer the prospect of redemption? “Cherub” continues to challenge the reader by asking us to consider what a world would be like if every baby was born with a visual representation of their character riding on their backs. At first glance, the parents could see which sins their child would embrace. In a way, child and rider become a form of self-fulfilling prophesy, i.e. the rapist rapes, the murderer kills, and so on. This family produces a son with a cherub on his back. This proves to be something of an affront to the village which relentlessly takes advantage of what they see as weakness. Yet, over time, his constant turning of the other cheek wears down the hatred. When he marries, the village rallies round him and feels good about the moment. There’s just one potential fly in the ointment. What we take to be childhood innocence can be lost as the adult gains experience of the world. In the case of such a young man, that would indeed be a tragic loss.

“The Shallow End of the Pool” is also about the nature of relationships and the mechanisms we humans create to resolve our differences. If we’re lucky, we settle things without involving others, but there are times when we fight vicariously, finding and training champions to enter the lists on our behalf to joust unto the death. This story takes one of the champions as the POV and wonders what would happen if the other champion was a brother and those “fighting” were their parents. Don’t you just wish those parents could just kiss and make up? “Pieces of Ethan” is, quite simply, wonderful. It’s not just the precise meaning of the title which only becomes apparent about two-thirds of the way through. It’s the final pages in which the source of the affliction is revealed that has the biggest impact. By any standards, this is a remarkable story. And finally, “The Boy and the Box” invites us to consider what would go on in the mind of a boy who suddenly discovered how to put the world in a box. He could, of course, take individuals or things out of the box to play with whenever he wanted. But, after a time, that would all get rather boring. So what would he do then? The answer is rather fascinating, but not completely satisfying. Put all this together and Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories is the best collection so far this year.

For reviews of other books by Adam-Tryo Castro, see:
Emissaries From the Dead
The Third Claw of God

Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh by Jay Lake

November 1, 2013 1 comment

Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh

Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh by Jay Lake (Prime Books, 2013) is a novella in a limited edition of 1,000 hardback copies which explores a human body both figuratively and literally. Ostensibly this is about Markus Selvage and his lover Danni as they make decisions about themselves as individuals and as a pair. At every point in their lives, there are limits on what they are prepared to do. The questions, of course, are under what circumstances they are willing to break through those limits and what the results will be.

As a context for understanding this work, I need to remind readers that Jay Lake has cancer. In many cases this is a disease that strikes without fault on the part of the victim. It just happens. Consequently, he’s a dead man walking. The chemotherapy has recently produced a period of stability, adding another six months to his life expectancy. This is not without its costs, depression being one of them. No matter how much a man in this position may aim for stoicism, living from day to day can’t prevent him from wondering when the cancer will resume its progress. He may take some satisfaction from having delayed the inevitable and to having a not unpainful month or so in remission. But when you have no sense of walking into the future, it’s difficult to avoid considering the fallibility of the body and the inevitability of death. Not that I’m suggesting this novella is explicitly autobiographical. But it does draw on the author’s preoccupations and fears, offering him and us a chance to assess the relationship between the intellect and the physical body, and to muse on the way in which it can sometimes be convenient to forget some aspects of our life when memories would be too painful.

Jay Lake staying strong in the face of adversity

Jay Lake staying strong in the face of adversity

So the story of Markus Selvage is divided into discontinuous narrative threads. At one moment, we are with him as he nears death, considering the nature of his body, travelling into the highways and byways of the blood circulation system, and visiting essential organs like the liver to consider whether his lifestyle may have weakened it. Then we might voyage back with him to his childhood, or spend time with Danni. As a child, there are signs of innocence. He seems to misunderstand the relationship he’s supposed to have with his erratic mother. As a man in a partnership, he’s also not entirely sure who he is. His solution is to wait for Danni to expose him to new experiences, to enable him to find facets to his personality he never knew existed. Since she’s a Goth and somewhat extreme, this quite quickly takes him into a strange landscape.

Indeed, this novella is a work of extremes. The prose is, at times, achingly beautiful and tending to the poetic. Yet the content is sometimes remarkably explicit and will not be to everyone’s taste. It would not be unfair to identify a dissonance in the use of the language to describe somewhat perverse activity. However, when viewed in context, it’s perhaps a direction to be expected. If the body is not quite what the “owner” wants, the question would always be why it should not be modified. This story does not, you understand, involve the usual choreography of invasive or merely cosmetic surgery by licensed professionals. Anyone can pick up a knife and make experimental cuts. After several cuts, the self-modifier becomes increasingly confident and the cuts more radical. Characterising the body as a form of machine, the owner tinkers with it, changing parts, adding others. After a while, there can be pieces of metal where previously there was flesh, or there can merely be less flesh. The advantage is the metal parts cannot know fear or pain. All they can do is leak the machine oil, i.e. blood, from the surrounding flesh.

In the end, the book is unsettling. The author as artist has the power to puncture the wall of indifference we erect around ourselves as a defence against caring for or about other people. Perhaps Markus Selvage is betrayed and led into undermining his body’s strength by trying to make an impossible transformation. Or perhaps his body is inherently weak and he can only survive by adding incorruptible parts to his body. Either way, there’s an inevitable result. Flesh and metal cannot fuse into a single being. No matter what a mind may tell itself, unsterilised piercing and installations induce a source of corruption. The metal rusts and pollutes the flesh. Then he’s not capable of being salvaged. He’s only fit for being thrown on to the scrapheap of life.

So Love in the Time of Metal and Flesh is a kind of existential horror story. It has great power. I’m not sure it’s in any way entertaining, but it certainly provokes thought and, in these superficial times, that’s high praise.

For reviews of other books by Jay Lake, see:
Endurance
Green
Kalimpura
The Sky That Wraps.
Jay Lake and Nick Gevers edited Other Earths.

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