Short stories

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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”

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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

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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.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.25.2014
Read the story online at the New Yorker.

“A Stone Woman” begins in a quiet haze of sorrow. Ines’ mother has died:

People had thought she was a dutiful daughter. They could not imagine two intelligent women who simply understood and loved each other.

As with many of A. S. Byatt’s protagonists, Ines is an older woman left in a position where society, and she herself, expect little else to come of her. To “solitude and silence” she resigns herself.

But the story turns, and turns, and turns again, impelled by a quiet vigor, a hungry, searching fascination with the natural world. Strangeness proliferates: Ines proliferates, her body sprouting clusters of crystals, nodes and veins of stone.

She saw dikes of dolerites, in graduated sills, now invading her inner arms. But it took weeks of patient watching before, by dint of glancing in rapid saccades, she surprised a bubble of rosy barite crystals breaking through a vein of fluorspar, and opening into the form known as a desert rose, bunched with the ore flowers of blue john. Her metamorphosis obeyed no known laws of physics or chemistry: ultramafic black rocks and ghostly Iceland spar formed in succession and clung together.

“By dint of glancing in rapid saccades” – !! Perfect. The story’s language is by turns minutely exacting, and bounding, gusty, electric. It encompasses the wonder of dictionary-language (Ines, again typically for a Byatt character, is a “researcher for a major etymological dictionary”) – hard, crystalline mouthfuls of Latin and Greek (botryoidal, hematite, icositetrahedral) – as well as the mythical, elemental Germanic sounds of gleam, rattle, stride, moss.

Likewise, the story’s emotional focus moves easily from particular quirks of character –

The English scholar that persisted in her said, “What does it mean?”

– out to larger, universal, mythical arcs of movement and transformation. It is a personal and thrilling fairy tale, rough and vital.

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Fans of Australian author-illustrator Shaun Tan, please to enjoy his very short illustrated story “Eric (presented by the Guardian), about a peculiar foreign exchange student. (Fans of Chris Van Allsburg will likely be keen on Tan’s work as well, given the resonance between their quiet, eerie, carefully rendered illustrations.) The last image made me gasp, and my skin prickle.

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Dispatches from a Troubled City (via Super Punch) is a satisfyingly varied collection of art inspired by the work of China Miéville, featuring work by nearly 20 different artists. The collection encompasses sculpture, artifacts, poster/cover design, and illustration, all almost entirely based on the Bas-Lag books, but with a couple of tributes to Un Lun Dun (my review; Kakaner’s) as well.

Favorites: Steve Thomas’ pro-avanc propaganda, Jason Chalker’s awkward-creepy-cute magus fin, and Jared Axelrod’s box of battered memorabilia from the pages of Perdido Street Station.

Go to:

China Miéville: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.12.14

“When I close my eyes, I see Jacova Angevine.

I close my eyes, and there she is, standing alone at the end of the breakwater, standing with the foghorn as the choppy sea shatters itself to foam against a jumble of gray boulders. The October wind is making something wild of her hair, and her back’s turned to me. The boats are coming in.”

Caitlín Kiernan’s novelette “Houses Under the Sea” (2003) introduces the Lovecraftian deep-sea mythology that later figures largely in the 2012 novel The Drowning Girl. My favorite section of the story is actually the very first, where Kiernan sets glinting shards of memory tumbling in the liquid medium of her protagonist’s memory. It’s painful, frightening, smoky, sensuous (just take the fact that the victim-villainess’ name is as outrageously rich as Jacova Angevine), with a noirish swagger later amplified by the narrator’s hard-drinking pathos, and, rather playfully, by included excerpts from the works of Angevine’s mystery-novelist father.

Technically, the story is beautifully crafted, with Kiernan’s trademark circular movement (which echoes the final image that ends up haunting the narrator – “She has drawn a circle around me”) of thought and memory carrying the reader to successive climaxes of dread. An empty warehouse with a recently painted-over floor. Undersea things – coldly, sinuously, invasively sensuous, both muscular and rotten-soft.

The role that the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s deep-sea exploration plays in the story is especial fun for me given the fact that I spent several years in elementary school obsessively drawing viperfish and anglerfish, and that my dream job for a much longer time was to work at said aquarium… (It did just occur to me that a thread of my anglerfish affinity persists, in that I now study the family of bacteria that includes Photobacterium, those responsible for the luminescence of anglerfishes’ and flashlight fishes’ light organs. Shine on, you creepy diamonds.)

Go to:

Caitlín R. Kiernan: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 11.2.2013
Book from: Personal collection

Louisa the Poisoner: cover

‘There are three things that grow in March Mire,’ said the aunt, in a silly sing-song voice, her eyes half closed, ‘and that grow nowhere else together, and seldom anywhere. Find them in one spot, take them and make them up. From them comes this dew. Oh Louisa. Listen carefully. This stuff grants the gift of death.’
Louisa widened her eyes but she was not actually impressed. Death was everywhere in the mire and especially often in her aunt’s nasty bottles.
‘Listen,’ said the aunt again, ‘the poison in this bottle leaves no trace as it kills. In the world beyond the mire this can mean much. I’ve told you, there are towns along the moors, and great houses piled up with money and jewels. If every cobweb on that ceiling was changed to bank notes it would be nothing to them … We’ll seek for just such a rich place. Then I’ll know how to go on. You shall pretend to be a lost lady, as I’ve trained you. You’ll do as I say, and our fortunes will be made.’
‘But how, Aunt?’
‘They’ll fall in love, and make over their goods through wills, which I’ve told you of. And then I’ll see them off …’

This standalone Tanith Lee novella from Wildside Press is quite as wicked and frivolous as it sounds. There’re vile aristocrats, bloody deaths, and incidental madmen and ghost horses; there’s brooding architecture (a manor called Maskullance!) and one of Lee’s trademark canny and uncanny heroines – those women who enter into society at an angle, slice their way in quietly. Also, George Barr provides some beautifully pulpy illustrations; his Louisa has a great Vivian Leigh-ish thing going on:

Unfortunately, the prose isn’t quite as effortless as it so often is in Lee’s work – the little twists of syntax often feel worked over, rather than sinuous and startling, and the dialogue frequently falls short of wittiness. And I think the story would have worked better at shorter length, given that a reading a detailed accounting of the sequential deaths of a bunch of boorish aristocrats entails spending a depressing amount of time with those aristocrats.

Still, the last few pages work up to a tremor of dreadful sublimity, and feature one of the best descriptions of hell I’ve ever read. If not one of Lee’s strongest works, this is nonetheless a fun treat for a cloudy autumn afternoon.

Louisa the Poisoner - Illustration by George Barr

Go to:
Tanith Lee: bio and works reviewed

 

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I went on a mini-binge of podcasts and radio shows this past spring while finishing up some bookbinding projects; here are readings of three dark tales that I particularly enjoyed back then.

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Ira Sher, “The Man in the Well” (1996)
Listen online: Act 2 of This American Life episode The Cruelty of Children

Wells again, this time as a metaphor for the infinitely strange distance from which children can regard adult suffering. Perfectly chilling, and a perfectly paced reading.

In a “Lottery”ish turn, the original broadcast did not explicitly state that the story was fiction, leading to outraged calls from lo, many listeners.

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Clark Ashton Smith, “The Ninth Skeleton” (1928)..
Listen online: Pseudopod #331. (Or read online here.)

Smith is one of the big old Weird Talers whose work I’m less familiar with; this story puts some satisfyingly weird shit on display – a suggestive phantasmagoria whose horror conflates motherhood and femininity with corruption and death (for men). God forbid! The repeated description of the lissomely prancing lady-skeletons is just so ridiculous, and so sinister.

Vis-a-vis the lady-horror, I felt a bit of resonance with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” i.e.,

“…and, by the blaze of the hell-kindled torches, the wretched man beheld his Faith, and the wife her husband, trembling before that unhallowed altar.”

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Christine Brooke-Rose, “Red Rubber Gloves” (1966).
Listen online: Pseudopod #329

This is almost physically painful to listen to, both because of how mentally demanding it is to focus on the repetitive narrative form, and because of how much tighter and tighter and tighter the suspense is drawn via the winch of that repetition. The sterility of the images grows increasingly alien, glaring, and menacing; likewise the voice of the narrator – one woman* in confinement watching another – seems, increasingly, not unhinged, but simply dissociated from reality, moving with inhuman detachment amid an assemblage of flat, hot, arid shapesWhen the horror finally breaks, its volume seems insignificant in comparison to the cumulative effect of all the seeming nothing that has come before.

* I just realized that I assumed that the in-story narrator is a woman because Pseudopod’s narrator is; I can’t remember whether there were any explicit cues in the story as to the narrator’s gender, but I suspect that the narrator’s implicit identification with the observed housewife, and the parallels with “The Yellow Wallpaper,” would have had me guessing female anyway.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.10.2013

Digging through my enormous backlog of short story links –

“Troublesolving,” by Tim Pratt (2009): Read the story at Subterranean Online. 

and

“Little Gods,” by Tim Pratt (2002): Read the story at Strange Horizons.

Tim Pratt writes very likable prose; the protagonists in both of these stories narrate with easy, musing movement of thought. “Troublesolving” is a light thriller about a divorcé who encounters a mysterious woman who promises to “fix broken things” for him, just as his recent spate of troubles, from lapsed insurance to a thoroughly vandalized apartment, begins to go really batty. The story doesn’t give the impression of straining itself to be either amusing or startling, and so succeeds at both very well. Its amiably glum protagonist moves through a few science-fictional twists that are fun in an expected kind of way – it’s the incidental observations about ergonomic chairs and pink handguns that really sell the humor, the characters, and their puzzling circumstances.

The Nebula-nominated “Little Gods,” a meditation on grief, ran twee for my tastes, but Pratt’s quietness of tone moderates the sugar to a certain extent, and there are a number of nicely concretely imagined moments:

“I hurl the chunk of rock at the woman on the ceiling. It hits her in the stomach and bounces off, landing on the coffee table with a crack. She squawks like a blackbird. Her skirts draw in quickly like windowshades snapping shut, and then she’s gone, nothing on my ceiling but abandoned spiderwebs.”

Go to:

Tim Pratt: bio and works reviewed

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