Short stories

You are currently browsing the archive for the Short stories category.

“The Love of Beauty” is collected in Bishop’s That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote, and you can read the story free online at the Weird Fiction Review.

Near the middle of the night, Seaming dithered in front of the brick arch – formerly a minor gate in the old city wall and now a decoration in a lane. If there existed a main entrance to the Ravels, it was that arch. It stood only half a furlong from the glitz of Cake Street, but the short distance marked a change of register from the demimonde to the underworld proper. Behind the gaudy theatres and beer halls the streets became dark, the buildings closely pressed, the walls bare of signs, posters, paint – of everything except light-absorbing soot.

Seaming smoked a cigarette, a last procrastination, while a polka spinning down from a loft somewhere invited him to head back, spend the rest of the night with friends, and let that be that.

Act as if you belong, she had told him, and you’ll be safe enough.

“The Love of Beauty” is one of the ur-Etched City stories in Bishop’s collection. Though none of The Etched City‘s characters appear here (unlike the Gwynn-centric “The Art of Dying”), Bishop, in playing out an alternative ending to Beauty and the Beast, here stages some of the central questions and themes that are later enacted between the artist Beth and her duellist-muse Gwynn: the exercise of power and choice by traditionally passive female archetypes; and the ability of art to remake reality, especially through alchemical modes like transfiguration, refinement, and, conversely, the generation of hybrid forms. There are also echoes of Gwynn and the Rev’s amiable debates over the baseness (or not) of humanity’s desires and capabilities: the Decadent hypothesis advanced by several of the characters in “Beauty” is that art simply represents an opportunity for humans to indulge to the maximum their sensual desires, under the guise of exercising “their highest and holiest faculties.”

I read this past summer a biography of John Singer Sargent, and couldn’t help thinking of him on this reread of “Beauty” – self-effacing, determinedly apolitical, fiendishly talented but only timidly experimental, ultimately a bourgeois sensualist, he rhymes rather well with the character of Seaming. Seaming is a traditionalist and idealist, a wan foil to the morbid recklessness of ideas brandished by the rest of the cast. It’s his idealism that invests his art with alchemical potency, but leaves him defenseless against the revelation of a world activated by animal desires. Seaming’s moral universe is incompatible with the notion that the animal might be sublime.

If “Beauty” is Bishop’s “Picture of Dorian Gray” (a connection I also didn’t think of till this read, but which now seems blindingly apparent), Seaming is also easily the analogue of the sincerely anguished painter Basil Hallward, while his poet friend Stroud is on hand to dispense ego-puncturing witticisms as the resident Lord Henry. The Wilde connection is also made easy by the rotting Victorian setting of “Beauty” – I find this story to have a more traditional dark fantasy aesthetic (meaning “Gormenghast” by “traditional,” I guess) than the sort of Symbolist wasteland in “Art of Dying,” or the steamy colonial landscape of Ashamoil.

There’s a peculiar emptiness to the physical setting of “Beauty.” The danger implicit in Beauty’s warning of “you’ll be safe enough” to Seaming prior to his entry into the Ravels never manifests as expected. The Ravels that Seaming encounters is a leashed menace: thickly eerie, but empty. There’s a sense that it’s been locally vacated in order to furnish a space where this particular allegorical drama can take place: Seaming is reserved as victim for spiritual threat, rather than physical. (It’s also a tempting interpretation that Seaming is simply below the notice of whatever is happening in the rest of the Ravels.)

The story unspools with a swift, morbid grace. Scene-setting and backstory feel much lengthier than the actual “action:” Seaming’s interview with Beauty and the Beast, and his completion of the Beast’s portraits. My one dissatisfaction with the story is that balance between build-up and dissolution, the way that the story seems to begin to slip away too swiftly during the turning-point of the interview. This creates a decided aesthetic effect – undercutting melodrama, and Seaming’s weak attempts at harvesting it. (See also the end of the journalist in “The Art of Dying.”) But there’s a larger sense of off-kilter narrative construction: as intriguing as it is, the teasing about the dangers of the Ravels perhaps belongs to a different story; and then, having found its narrative center, the remainder of this story proceeds a little too impatiently to its conclusion. The facts of the case of this Beauty and Beast are revealed in a few paragraphs of very direct exposition, and there’s a coy refusal to show any of Seaming’s artistic process. Somewhere along that stretch, I keep thinking, something could have been lingered over just a bit longer.

For those reasons, “The Love of Beauty” has never rung to me with the assurance of Bishop’s best work. But it is, in addition to being a rich philosophical playground, as thickly beautiful and infuriatingly witty as usual.

Go to:
That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote, by K. J. Bishop (2012): master post
The Etched City, by K. J. Bishop (2003)

Tags: , , ,

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: Jan. 2017

“Nicholas Sayre and the Creature in the Case” appears in Garth Nix’s 2005 collection Across the Wall, and “To Hold the Bridge” appears in his 2010 collection of the same name; both novellas flirt with the notion of everyday life in Ancelstierre (1920’s England/Australia parallel) and the Old Kingdom (magical) respectively, but of course work up into suspenseful adventures.

“The Creature in the Case” follows an escapade of Nick’s, who’s recovering back in Ancelstierre following the events of the final book of the Old Kingdom trilogy. Higher-ups in Ancelstierre are keen on learning more about his experiences with Old Kingdom magic, so he’s dispatched to what’s nominally a country houseparty in order to be covertly questioned by officers there. As the title implies, a cross between P. G. Wodehouse and creature feature ensues.

I disliked this novella the first time I read it; I remember finding it clunky and unfunny. (My antipathy towards Nick as the trilogy’s resident magic-disbeliever couldn’t have helped, but thankfully my no-longer-teenage brain doesn’t see that sort of thing as excruciating heresy anymore.) 180 this time: though the usual Nix weaknesses make themselves known (generic villains, mediocre prose undermining psychology), I found the story zippy, darkly picturesque, and full of moments of quiet wit and thoughtfulness. Nix’s experience as a National Guard and keenness on military history always makes the military elements in his stories particularly sharp and intriguing, so the payoff in a story set partially in a secret government facility is tremendous. So many striking little glimpses like this one, as Nick is being led through the compound:

“…they came to a double-width steel door with two spy holes. Lackridge knocked, and after a brief inspection they were admitted to a guardroom inhabited by five policeman types. Four were sitting around a linoleum-topped table under a single suspended lightbulb, drinking tea and eating doorstop-size sandwiches.”

I admit Nick as a protagonist is still a puzzle to me since I find it hard to overcome the sense that the only reason I have to like him is because the narrative really, really wants me to (and because he’s so forcefully put forward as a romantic match for Lirael, sigh). This prop-ishness means that his numerous moments of heroic resolve feel contrived in comparison to the other protagonists’; they move the plot on, but don’t add up to a unified sense of a character for me. I suspect he’ll reappear in Goldenhand, though, so I do look forward to furthering our acquaintance.

—–

“To Hold the Bridge” is set I’m-not-sure-when in the Old Kingdom. (The Bridge is finished in Goldenhand, so decades prior at the least.) It follows Morghan, a young man from rough circumstances who’s seeking to join the Greenwash Bridge Company, the Old Kingdom’s equivalent of the East India Trading Company – a daring commercial venture with a lucrative royally-issued monopoly. The Bridge Company has invested decades in building a bridge across the vast Greenwash River north of the Kingdom’s capital, in order to open up trade with the northern steppes and mountains; at the time of the story, the bridge is still incomplete, and held by select guards of the Bridge Company.

All of this means that the story is porn for those who enjoy pseudo-historical logistical detail [me]. There is a great deal of touching detail about Morghan’s difficult childhood with pathologically selfish and drug-using parents, and how he survived to become (of course) a quiet, strategic, and resolute young man, talented but nonetheless on the brink of poverty due to his lack of formal training and connections.

But even more detail is lavished on the Company’s operations, training, and recruitment; as always, I find Nix’s observant eye for a sense of practical living in an an invented world very rewarding. There’s a lively, brisk sense of the Bridge Company as colorful and bustling yet shaped by the expectation of danger, and the way the story’s grounded in the experience of a more vulnerable member of society is refreshing compared to the focus of all the other Old Kingdom stories on elites.

I think, though, that the pacing of the novella is a mess; I was forced to admit by the end that that abundance of practical detail ended up being a narrative liability. The vast majority of the story is dedicated to Morghan’s first day trying out at the company, such that the climactic action sequence at the end feels disproportionate (disproportionately small, that is) and unearned. Here again the weakness of Nix’s villains is a factor: we know in advance that the Bridge Company is wary, but there isn’t a concrete sense of what exactly they’re defending against, so that the climactic attack feels arbitrary.

Altogether, I was ready to love this novella, but came away with the sense that it was fragmentary and rushed – the last third feels like Nix was either running out of time or lost interest in developing the narrative, having already established the worldbuilding elements that were most to his satisfaction. Still, I’d recommend it for fans of the series as being, again, a less usual perspective on life in the Old Kingdom, and as usual populated with tough, likable characters with hints of intriguing backstory.

Go to:
Clariel, by Garth Nix (2014): review by Emera
Undercover: Clariel

Tags: , , ,

More tidying of the drafts backlog. I read this issue back in 2011, holy crap; I’m not sure why I wrote about only these two stories. I did note that in the two old MF&SF issues that I own from the 1980’s, there wasn’t a single female writer, out of 17 total authors and several more columnists (also there were these spectacular ads).

—-

“From the Desk of Gilmer C. Merton,” Gene Wolfe: This was a terrible way to first read Wolfe. (I read The Wizard Knight duology, a very distinctive Arthurian retelling, shortly afterwards and liked it quite well.) The story is an extended and unfunny joke about sf&f publishing.

—-

“Down Among the Dead Men,” Gardner Dozois and Jack Dann: Vampiric Jew in a concentration camp. I say “vampiric Jew” rather than “Jewish vampire” because Dozois and Dann don’t seem to have put any effort into making this at all a particularly Jewish story, which seemed thoughtless and insensitive. The vampire character, and the narrator’s reactions to him, are clearly the products of western fictional conventions by way of Bram Stoker, which seems idiotic when you consider the wealth of fascinating, terrifying eastern European and specifically Jewish vampire folklore. The only Jewish thing the narrator does is participate in observance of Passover; otherwise we see him thinking about how he used to venerate another character as a “saint” and a makeshift weapon as a “holy relic.”

  • Encyclopedia Britannica: “The cult of saints in terms of veneration was not a part of the monotheistic religion of Israel.”
  • jewishvirtuallibrary.org: “Judaism, as a general rule, rejects physical manifestations of spirituality … perhaps the greatest sin the Israelites collectively committed was the construction of the Golden Calf … Today, Jews do not venerate any holy relics or man-made symbols.”

Encountering the vampire seems to have no spiritual repercussions for the narrator (which I have a hard time believing would happen even if he were a secular Jew – wouldn’t it make you start thinking hard thoughts if you were suffering at the hands of both mundane and supernatural embodiments of evil?); again his Jewishness is ignored, and the vampire trope is ultimately mined only to make fairly banal points about the contagiousness of violence and what people are willing to do to survive. All told, I had a hard time not seeing this as a by-the-book vampire story, with a distasteful veneer of seriousness and importance.

Go to:
BBCF: MF&SF, June 1983
Time Warp 1987: F&SF and a couple of soggy old men
More from the annals of F&SF

Tags: , , ,

“One by one I’ve started hunting down those hazy figures of my past, the children hiding in the bodies of adults, tucked away in pockets of the countryside like witnesses in a protection program.”

Kerry-Lee Powell’s “There Are Two Pools You May Drink From” (Boston Review) is an excellent read for an evening when you’re feeling quiet and tired and maybe a little bit sad for ill-defined reasons (she said from personal experience). The title is terrific, to begin with – lovely, ominous, with fairy-tale echoes – and the story plays out that sense of unsettling stillness and depth, keeps it pouring on and on.

I’m struck by the story’s intense sense of gaze – a level, magnetic gaze. The narrator seems all gaze, determinedly empty of particularities of self, extroverting with quiet, furious energy only her hunger for others’ experience, the “kind of hunger [that] never really leaves.”

But then again, there are those sudden emergences of an articulated “I,” beautifully placed to startle amid the stream of vivid remembrance. “I know you can never really go back. I have lied to people myself and watched them nod in agreement and say, yes, that’s just how it was.” “I have come all this way, I wanted to say, and across all these years for you to tell me whose face it was that loomed over yours while you cried or pretended to sleep. I wanted her to tell me so that I could then tell her about some of the things that had happened to me.” It was for these effects of consciousness that I really loved the story, more than for any of the suggestions of plot that gradually emerge. The plottier revelations – as lightly handled as they are – felt expected, a little tired, compared to everything that surrounds them. (Maybe I’m just tending toward some ridiculous vanishing point where I’ll finally lose interest in anything but atmosphere in fiction; more seriously, and specifically to the story, I do think that I’m impatient with or jaded by certain kinds of narrative convention around sexual trauma.)

Thinking more, I’m reminded suddenly of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily;” these two stories fit together well, with their ethic of small-town Gothic, and intense foregrounding of the act of witnessing.

– E

Tags: ,

Rikki Ducornet, “Wormwood” (1997)
Available in the Iowa Review and in Ducornet’s collection The Word ‘Desire’

Strange, jagged, haunted, heated – like an animal taking little bites out of a freshly killed rabbit. Two children whisper dark stories and dirty, childish love-words to each other as a grandfather lies dying and a terrifying sculpture presides. The last batch of short fiction that I read by Ducornet – her collection The One Marvelous Thing – tended to the precious, in my opinion. I much preferred “Wormwood” for its rawness, its closeness to nightmare or fever-dream.

Stephen King, “A Death” (2015)
Read for free online: The New Yorker

The jury took an hour and a half. “We voted to hang him on the first ballot,” Kelton Fisher said later, “but we wanted it to look decent.”

A spare Western tale of moral doubt and casual miscarriage of justice. I admired its extreme tautness of language, and darkly funny dialogue. I had to read it two or three times before I’d satisfied myself that I’d explored plot possibilities other than the most obvious one presented at the story’s end.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Apollo” (2015)
Read for free online: The New Yorker

and

Rikki Ducornet’s “Bazar” (1991)
Available in the Chicago Review and in Ducornet’s collection The Complete Butcher’s Tales

These two get filed together on account of both being stories of repressed homosexual desire – one narrated by a Nigerian man revisiting his childhood friendship with his parents’ houseboy, and the other set in the heat and clutter of a bazaar in French Algeria shortly before its war for independence in the 1950’s.

“Apollo” is quietly tragic; disappointed affection turns into a moment of severance, of irreversible cruelty; this brings us back round to contemplate things initially unsaid by the the adult narrator. The story is also very much about class, and about the wary orbit that children maintain around their parents, and about reevaluating things seen at a distance (parents included).

Speaking of orbiting: Adichie relates in the accompanying interview that the etymology for “Apollo,” a colloquial term for conjunctivitis, might have to do with the Apollo-11 mission, and the American Academy of Optometry confirms so here. In the body of the story itself, no etymology is mentioned, and so I loved the term’s potent mysteriousness – its bittersweet glow, its intimations of an idealized, youthful homoeroticism, and of health and healing. (On revisiting the story, I noticed that the houseboy who preceded Raphael has the similarly suggestive name of “Hyginus” – also Greek, and having to do with health.)

Ducornet’s “Bazar” is almost explosively cruel by comparison – further explosions being foreshadowed by the impending Algerian War – though interspersed also with extremely funny dialogue between the bazar-owner and his bossy, canny American-expat friend. As with “Wormwood,” there’s a nightmarish viciousness to it; Ducornet’s trademark baroque language tumbles, slithers, lurches, and plunges among the crowded topography of the bazar, and the pitfalls of its proprietor’s psychology.

Tags: , , ,

K. J. Bishop’s “Beach Rubble” was first published in Borderlands #1, and recently republished in her short story collection That Book Your Mad Ancestor Wrote (2012). I’ve been rereading the collection lately for the first time since it came out, and eventually hope to write about most, if not all, of its contents in one way or another. (I’ve previously written about “The Heart of a Mouse” here, I realize.)

“Beach Rubble” is a dreamy, melancholy story of a brief romance between a young man (Zack) and a woman who might be very old indeed (Melusine), set on a virtual-reality island. It shares with The Etched City and “The Love of Beauty” the figures of elusive, alchemical women, and a certain procedural similarity to the bazaar segment of “We the Enclosed,” in its searching-through of accumulated objects for personal meaning. As an expression of the latter, I quote below a particularly beautiful and resonant passage, which works both as an expression of straining to apprehend a loved one who never quite drew near enough, and as an embodiment of the way that many of Bishop’s characters use ornamentation and artifice to delineate their identities.

“I’ve been going through all the stuff in the Lost and Found, looking at the things she chose to keep, discovering something like the shape of a hollow where she had lain in thousands of other people’s minds.”

Throughout Bishop’s work, that luxuriation in surface and artifice rarely goes unaccompanied by a shadow of misgiving: “Art is lust!” accuses the Beast in “The Love of Beauty,” and “the artist is a pornographer!” We see too a few flinching encounters with the ultimate descendant of the love of objects: mass production and consumerism. I think again of the bazaar episode in “We the Enclosed,” of the warped economy in “Heart of a Mouse,” and the several encounters with the pale uncanniness of suburbia in “Enclosed,” “Vision Splendid,” “She Mirrors,” and probably others.

In “Beach Rubble,” the virtual-reality setting is a useful means by which Bishop deepens and makes stranger that discomfort. Here there are no real tigers (sorry, Gwynn and Beth; thinking also of Wallace Stevens’ “tigers in red weather”), only a multiply mediated rendering of one: a virtual rendition of a carved ivory tiger’s head, delivered by a digital art gallery service. Real tigers, back on real Earth, are extinct, it’s suggested too.

And the exotic setting is, of course, beautifully done –

“The room was decorated with old prints and dwarf palms in African pots. Big windows faced the sea, where dhows and a couple of sailing schooners were drifting around in a world of sun-ignited blue.”

– but that exoticism is obliged to be more self-conscious than anywhere else: “Dark-skinned drones simulated a bustling population.” And all of this idyll funded by a Swiss bank account…

Melusine is a potent choice of name for the female protagonist. It entails secret-keeping (which is this Melusine’s ultimate aesthetic, and which she passes on to Zack), and watery elements, and an actual tail. I like to think that this Melusine might have tried on the alias in an effort at solidarity or identification with the mermaids whom she claims to have stolen her husband. “On nights after that I sometimes glimpsed their long cold tails flashing in the water, but I never saw my husband again.”

The insistently present element of water formed an interesting locus for many of my thoughts about Bishop’s fiction, though the water in “Beach Rubble” is a repetitive and encircling ocean. I associate Bishop’s work more with rivers, tributaries, a sense of continual onward-flowing. Some kind of end, some kind of drastic change in state is approaching (the edge of the Teleute Shelf in “The Art of Dying,” with its mysteriously nonvisible waterfall?); things very soon will not be as they were before; but the river keeps flowing.

I think of Beth’s fishing float being carried away, and her metaphor of whirlpools meeting, parting, and traveling on; of the water that carries the Gleeful Horse to Molimus; of the way that Zack in “Beach Rubble” sends his bottle-enclosed secrets floating out like feelers into the surrounding world, breaching the hermeticism of Melusine’s island; of the way we see Gwynn and his various analogues stride out again and again into various evenings and towards various ends, without ever quite ending.

Another piece of fiction that came to mind while reading “Beach Rubble:” Kelly Link’s story about a superhero convention and a MMORPG Missed Connection, “Secret Identity.” (This was most recently collected in Get In Trouble, which I have yet to pick up.) For me it’s not so much the obvious connection via virtual-reality romance, as it is the light, colorful, playfully sad way that both authors handle the irreal shine of video-game lives and mechanics. I wish Bishop’s shark programs handled my spam:

“It was your smooth white sand and coconut palms kind of beach, with lulling, sparkling wavelets, and parrots and gulls for colour and noise. Efficient shark programs patrolled the water. I’d never seen a single porn bottle or other spam object on the sand.”

As a side note, apologies for the lack of activity around here lately. I’m coming close (ish) (maybe!) to the end of my PhD, so time is at a premium, and writing here has had to fall off my priority list.

Go to:
K. J. Bishop: bio and works reviewed
The Etched City, by K. J. Bishop (2003): review by Emera
“The Heart of a Mouse,” by K. J. Bishop (2010): review by Emera

Tags:

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: Oct. 18, 2014
Book from: Personal collection

I went on a bit of an M. R. James rampage last winter (the most fearsome sort of rampage, clearly), but in February stopped about halfway into this, the second Penguin volume of his complete, classic ghost stories. The Haunted Dolls’ House (2006, annotated by S. T. Joshi) collects the contents of A Thin Ghost (1919) and A Warning to the Curious (1925), as well as several introductions by James to other collections of ghost stories, and “Stories I Have Tried to Write,” an amusingly brisk rundown of ghost stories that he conceived but failed to complete. (For reference, the first annotated Penguin volume is entitled Count Magnus & Other Stories. All of James’ stories are available free online as well.)

James’ later ghost stories are generally considered to be weaker than his earlier work; both this and the simple fact of having saturated on the Jamesian formula were what led me to hit the pause button on The Haunted Dolls’ House. But with the return of colder weather, I put it back into rotation as bedtime reading.

At this point I can hardly remember specifics of most of the stories that I read at the beginning of the year (and choose not to skim them now in case they can pleasantly surprise me during a dedicated future reread). But I do remember struggling to get through “The Residence at Whitminster” and “Two Doctors” – that there was a depressing lack of paragraph breaks to get one through the period chatter and hand-wringing, and that there was a general feeling of windiness and of much of the action being beside the point. “Two Doctors” is a great title, though, as are “The Uncommon Prayer-book” (only James!) and “There Was a Man Dwelt by a Churchyard” (thanks for the latter must go to Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale).

“An Episode of Cathedral History” is a classic, plain and simple. This is one of the James stories that I read anthologized many years ago, before I really knew who M. R. James was. Something emerging from cathedral depths – its long entombment disrupted – to terrorize a humble town…

I very much liked the eeriness and outdoor setting of “A View from a Hill” – even those of James’ stories that don’t deal with haunted rooms or houses have a feeling of enclosure about them thanks to their tightness of construction, so it was a refreshing and unsettling change of pace to locate the uncanny as an emergence from a broader, rural setting. And the descriptive passages of the English countryside were quite lovely, and again, unusually outdoorsy for James, who normally satisfies himself with a two-paragraph rundown of the architectural features of whatever Georgian manse or Gothic cathedral is under consideration.

“Rats” is just thoroughly great in my book, from the opening supposition, to the counterpoint of the hot afternoon sunlight and the thing in the bedroom. It gives me the same uncomfortable, fevery feeling as some of my favorite Lovecraft stories, and gibbets are always a winning point for me so far as sinister imagery is concerned.

“An Evening’s Entertainment” was unexpectedly, specifically gory for James, but the framing device of yesteryear’s granny telling a bedtime story was a charming application of James’ knack for voices, and I loved how the haunted site became the matrix for several generations of familial terror. I am also partial to any imagery involving Beelzebub (chalk it up to reading Lord of the Flies at an impressionable age), and the combination of the vicious, lingering flies with the temptation of dark, glistening blackberries was such a strikingly uncomfortable material juxtaposition. Black flies, blackberries…

The twelve bonus medieval (15th-century) ghost stories, transcribed by James and here translated by Leslie Boba Joshi, are thoroughly weird and wonderful, full of guilt and sorcery and marshes and midnight processions of ghosts riding livestock. I wish Mike Mignola would take some of them on; they’d be perfect for the folklore-centric volumes of Hellboy. I had a long conversation with friend E., who is currently attending divinity school, about their mixture of bizarre and terrifying folky spooks (“And you will see him in the shape of a bullock without mouth, eyes, or ears” – or, “Upon hearing this, the apparition faded into a shape something like a wine-vat, whirling at four angles, and started rolling away” !), with a sort of legalistic, liturgical fixation on absolution via confession – a clear warning and prescription to would-be secret sinners. Practically everybody in these stories is guilty of something, and just waiting to be found out (and then, ideally, absolved). The wronged master of the house takes recourse to consulting a sorcerer and a demon boy (whose supernatural abilities are accessed by anointing his fingernail???) in order to find the thief who ate his meats; an apparently innocuous traveler is confronted by the ghost of his aborted child. All of this conjures up images of a teeming supernatural world growing up out of a fertile substratum of moral murk. The misdeeds of the past furnish us with the great ghost stories of the present – a formula that James made the best of.

Go to:
M. R. James: bio and works reviewed
“M. R. James and the Quantum Vampire”

Tags: , ,

Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.17.14
Read online at Subterranean Press.

In a corner of the great southern metropolis known to its citizens as Obsidia, in a sprawling district known to its inhabitants as Marketside, a squat, hollowed-out block of a building sits at the edge of a roaring traffic circus, windows gaping like broken teeth in an ivory skull. In the center of that century-old pile of stone, a young student named Gillian Gobaith Jessamine stands under the drooping brown leaves of a lemon tree, a frisson of morriña trickling through her as she observes a canary groom itself in the sticky summer air. The canary is bright yellow under a layer of soot, and a small ivory ring marked with a row of numbers and letters binds one leg: this tells her that the bird isn’t some wild passerine but a domestic, bred for a specific anthracite mining company, several hundred miles away. Gillian knows because she wore a ring just like that, a scrimshaw bone collar fastened tight around the pale brown of her neck when she was young, when she worked in the deep of the earth.

Livia Llewellyn’s “Her Deepness” is my favorite single work out of the contemporary sff I’ve read over the past year. Elegantly grim and sardonic, and shaped around a tentative sense of yearning, the novella begins with a thoroughly Gothic conceit – the protagonist is a magically talented carver of gravestones in a funerary metropolis – then rapidly swerves into a long, phantasmagorical trainride that carries the characters through the Beksinski-esque cityscape of Obsidia, out to an abandoned mining town. (Obsidia, the setting for several of Llewellyn’s short stories, appears to sprawl across much of an alternate South America.)

I found the descriptions of the city and train utterly transportative, a kind of dreamlike matrix for the uncomfortable workings of Gillian’s psychology, and her wary interactions with the people who have more or less kidnapped her on account of her powers.

The stuff about cultic resurrection of an old god is fairly standard, with the execution here reminding me more of my high-school days of reading Clive Barker, more so than the explicitly invoked Lovecraft. Looking more closely at that reaction, I realize that it’s a roundabout way of saying that I no longer find gore or body horror to be a particularly interesting or compelling device. (This is probably why I chewed over Llewellyn’s short story “Engines of Desire, whose climax centers more or less on body horror, several times without ever quite coming to be convinced by it.)

But here, all of the god stuff is a McGuffin anyway – a point wearily argued by Gillian herself from the beginning. The real crux of the story is the confrontation forced between Gillian and her younger self, the self who worked in the mines, and left things behind there. Llewellyn works up to this confrontation with terrific, hypnotic intensity, the images that she chooses both honed and brutal.

The story ends with the sort of typographical styling that I normally find silly, but here I was more than willing to give it a pass given the excellence of everything that came before.

Writing all of this is making me want to re-read the story soon. I look forward also to exploring the rest of Llewellyn’s Obsidia stories, as collected by Lethe Press in Engines of Desire (2011). She’s one of the few new voices in genre fiction that I’ve found really compelling and interestingly difficult in recent years.

Recommended for fans of China Miéville’s Bas-Lag books, and of Caitlín Kiernan.

Go to:
Livia Llewellyn: bio and works reviewed

Tags: , , ,

The four 2014 Hugo short story nominees are the following (click the titles to read):

I found this spread of stories disappointing, with the exception of Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are for Losers,” which will be receiving my vote this year. (It’ll be my and Kakaner’s first time voting for the Hugos!)

From most to least liked, here are my reactions to each of the four stories:

Sofia Samatar’s “Selkie Stories Are for Losers” is far and away the best-written of the four. (It’s also one of two stories this year with a queer protagonist, the other being Chu’s “The Water…”) Samatar presents a compelling voice and point-of-view, and, with a beautifully light hand, weaves folklore together with her characters’ family traumas into a taut yet elusive narrative. That playful elusiveness, and the room that it creates for narrative and interpretive possibility, reminded me of Kelly Link’s work, as did the wry distance that the narrator tries to maintain from her own pain.

I have read a lot of selkie stories; Samatar’s makes the familiar themes of loss, departure, and home-seeking feel cuttingly fresh, urgent, and necessary. I believed in her characters.

I’m now looking forward even more eagerly to reading her first novel, A Stranger in Olondria, a copy of which has been waiting on my bookshelf since December.

—-

Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s “The Ink Readers of Doi Saket” has fun stylistic aspirations, but Heuvelt’s prose isn’t precise enough to carry off the arch effervescence that the story aims for. I was mildly charmed and amused by its portrayal of Thai villagers busily scheming amid a wish-granting festival (somewhat reminiscent of Barry Hughart’s sly, manic style in the Master Li & Number Ten Ox series), but ultimately I felt stifled by sentiment and whimsy, and unconvinced that the story had any substantial convictions.

—–

I found John Chu’s “The Water that Falls on You from Nowhere” stilted and ungainly, but did feel that some of its emotional stakes came across authentically. In terms of narrative construction, I appreciate the little twist that the parents, typically the fulcrum of a coming-out story, are here rather a McGuffin. Sometimes our fear of how others will react is exactly that – a construction; sometimes we get to be beautifully surprised by the generosity of our families. As another queer Chinese-American, I have, in fact, been outrageously lucky in this way, and I feel acutely grateful to John Chu for exploring that hinge between fear and action, and fear and actuality, in a specifically Asian-American context.

That said, though some of the moments of anguish in the story feel piercingly real, from sentence to sentence I found it very difficult to take the story seriously, on account of the many lurches of adolescent language – “Watching him suffer is like being smashed to death with a hammer myself,” for example. But I very much look forward to seeing what John Chu writes in the future.

—–

Finally: Rachel Swirsky’s “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” feels simply contrived. The story has to do the hard work of moving from its farcical title and playful opening towards a revelation intended to be devastating. My experience of it stalled in the vicinity of “farcical,” and ended at “mawkish.”

—–

Would love to hear others’ thoughts on the nominees this year, if anyone else has been doing Hugo reading!

– E

Go to:

Rachel Swirsky: bio and works reviewed
“Portrait of Lisane de Patagnia,” by Rachel Swirsky (2012): review by Emera

Tags: , ,

I’ve reread Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber about once a year for the past 8 or 9 years (that is, since I was 17 or so, and effectively trepanned, Emily-Dickinson-style, by my first reading of the collection), continually refining and enriching my understandings of her stories – which are not, Carter said, “retellings” of fairy tales, but attempts to “extract the latent content from the traditional stories.”

All this time, though, I’ve never actually written down any of my thoughts about the collection – perhaps because it really has felt like one continuous reading, with no clear outlet or stopping-place. (“The woods enclose. You step between the first trees and then you are no longer in the open air; the wood swallows you up… Once you are inside it, you must stay there until it lets you out again…”)

But here, finally, is a first attempt: some thoughts about the “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon,” prompted by a conversation with friend J (and then rather painfully rewritten several times over the past few months).

That story has always felt the least conducive to extended inquiry: it’s so much lighter and subtler in palette than most of the other stories in the collection (Fragonard next to a Caravaggio, approximately?), and it hews quite closely to the original moral thread of “Beauty and the Beast.” Compared to the other tales in the Chamber, it’s still wickedly sharp-eyed, but less on-edge, less violently dramatic – dare I say, sweeter. Pleasures more straightforwardly tender.

But there’s a definite strain of ironic commentary woven throughout “Mr. Lyon” about wealth and privilege. By extension, this reflects too on the invisibility of those who are not privileged: the literal invisibility of the Beast’s servants takes on a distinctly uncomfortable cast when framed by this explicit awareness of class privilege. While the servant angle isn’t deeply explored in the story, the hint of it still serves to unseat Carter’s telling from the easily conventional.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tags: , ,

« Older entries