Letter From The Editor - Issue 64 - August 2018

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Writing Fantasy

  
Another Dimension
  Book Reviews by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro
April 2018

Title: The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea
Editor: Ellen Datlow
Publisher: Night Shade Books

Ellen Datlow wades into delightfully murky waters In The Devil and The Deep, gathering fifteen horror stories—mostly of novelette and novella length—ranging, as she notes in the Introduction, “from obvious monsters to the mysterious; there are tales of shipwrecks, haunts, monsters—human and inhuman—one story even taking place on what was once an inland sea, long gone.” I mention the length of the stories because almost invariably they work to the advantage of the narratives in question, creating space for plenty of ambiance and character development, two requisites for strong horror.

As usual with anthologies, there is a variety of styles and techniques on display, and though I didn’t think any of these stories, em, tread water, five or so certainly create the illusion of walking on it. My favorite is Steve Rasnic Tem’s heartbreaking, enigmatic and profoundly disquieting “Saudade,” in which widower Lee reluctantly boards a senior cruise ship at the behest of his daughters, and amid this somewhat tacky setting is taught by a mysterious woman about the “melancholic longing for an absent something or someone one loves.” The banal, artificial happiness of the cruise ship setting, finely rendered by Tem, brought to mind David Foster Wallace’s rollicking essay “Shipping Out,” but this is merely Tem’s starting point. Within pages, Tem is creating disturbing effects through minimalist descriptions: “If he stared into the water long enough he could distinguish blacker areas within the black, moving independently.” Lee’s struggle to articulate how he feels, and his increasing disorientation, are in direct inverse proportion to Tem’s precise prose rhythms; the story’s final five words gave me an icy frisson of terror shot through with heartbreak.

Also outstanding is Lee Thomas’s “Fodder’s Jig”, which sensitively chronicles the effects of a mysterious sea-creature-borne virus on a late-in-life romance between George Caldwell and the story’s narrator. Thomas effortlessly switches between past and present, smoothly channeling a real sense of emotional intimacy along with the psychological backstory. The ending surprised me. Simon Bestwick’s “Deadwater,” the anthology opener, is a likewise quiet but elegantly-honed tale in which narrator Emily learns through her boyfriend, a police constable, that her ex-lover Robin appears to have committed suicide by cuff-linking himself to an outfall pipe and then waiting to be drowned by the tide. Of course all is not what it seems, and Emily’s investigation takes her far beneath the surface.

Two more stories that blew my expectations out of the water. Michael Marshall Smith delivers a tonal sea change with the unexpectedly hilarious and simultaneously gruesome, gore-filled romp “Shit Happens,” wherein a drunk employee of a multinational tech company finds himself in a truly outré and absurd—yet life-threatening—situation. My enjoyment of Smith’s slightly madcap, gonzo outing may have been enhanced by my having attended the 2017 StokerCon aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, which is the story’s setting. There I observed Smith in the area outside the main bar, “which not only had a great view over the bay but you were allowed to smoke there while drinking, which meant there was basically no good reason for me to leave it, ever, or at least for the duration of the conference.” I’m glad I didn’t intrude! Siobhan Carroll, by contrast, brings the anthology to a close with a thoughtful, dignified, and brilliantly-researched historical narrative about an 18th-century vessel’s “Haunt” by the cruelty of men and the forces of nature. Carroll’s attention to detail, and use of historically appropriate English, make for a compelling, one-of-a-kind read, technically on the level of William Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth (1980–1989) trilogy, though more thematically restrained.

Ray Cluley’s “The Whalers Song,” about a Norwegian whaling boat that goes down, stranding its crew on an island littered with whale bones, swirls with rich ambiance and pulls one under with its tension. Alyssa Wong’s “What My Mother Left Me” is a hard-hitting, viscerally-felt story about loss, the discovery of the past, and the embracing of the monstrous both without and within. Familial trauma likewise propels Seanan McGuire’s “Sister, Dearest Sister, Let Me Show to You the Sea”, in which one sibling attempts to murder another by drowning, with unimaginable results. A. C. Wise’s “A Moment Before Breaking” is a powerful journey of transformation by the sea, beautifully repurposing the alleged innocence of a fairytale into something far darker. Bradley Denton’s “A Ship of the South Wind,” with its fascinating historical Native American setting and stripped-down aesthetic, is another standout. Stephen Graham Jones’s “Broken Record” surfs on a kind of virtuoso, surreal, zany logic. (Golding again came to mind, this time Pincher Martin [1956]). There’s also solid work here by Brian Hodge, John Langan, Christopher Golden and Terry Dowling.

The storytellers assembled in The Devil and The Deep expertly weave sea-spells both familiar and exotic, from pure abyssal terror to abstract metaphysical dissolution. The bends never felt this good.

Title: Guardian Angels and Other Monsters
Author: Daniel H. Wilson
Publisher: Vintage

This debut collection by Daniel H. Wilson gathers fourteen stories, with an even split of seven reprints from various magazines and anthologies and seven original pieces, including one set in the world of Wilson’s popular novels Robopocalypse (2011) and Robogenesis (2014) and one that unfolds in the same universe as his more recent novel The Clockwork Dynasty (2017). As the collection’s title suggests, guardianship—both familial and across different types of sentient beings—is a recurring theme. In the opener, “Miss Gloria,” the protector is one robotic Chiron and the protectee is the eponymous six-year-old girl:

Of primary concern to Chiron is, of course, Miss Gloria’s physical safety. After that comes her emotional development, confidence, and self-esteem. He intends to ensure that Miss Gloria someday realize her full potential as a grown woman.

Chiron is well aware that he will be discarded long before reaching this goal, and he is content. He knows that before a sculpture is completed, the scaffolding must fall away.

This summarizes the sort of pathos inherent in the mythically-named robot, who encounters ever-increasing violence at the hands of kidnapper mercenaries intent on claiming Gloria but, like the famous film cyborg Terminator, reboots and keeps coming back. Unlike the classic Isaac Asimov story it clearly references, “Robbie” (1940), this tale boasts action in spades, and I enjoyed its twist ending, but perhaps the baddies’ motivation felt slightly undercooked.

In “The Blue Afternoon That Lasted Forever,” a devastating spatial phenomenon threatens to rip apart the Earth itself. In the midst of the madness, a single dad and dedicated physicist, whose knowledge of esoteric cosmic phenomena provides him with a unique understanding of what is to come, attempts to keep his daughter Marie calm and to protect her as long as possible. The story convincingly presents the end of life as we know it in a way that reminded me of Stephen Baxter’s “Last Contact” (2007), but derives its greatest effect from the exploration of the physicist’s internal landscape. Also in this vein, a father in desperate need of helping his ailing daughter must solve a riddle created by the long-deceased patriarch Arkady; the riddle is now dispensed by an artificial “Executor.” If you think you might like a short hybrid of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade with your favorite Mafia movie, you’ll probably enjoy this one.

“Helmet,” in which a slum-dwelling boy is entrapped by a seemingly sentient suit of armor, and “Blood Memory,” in which a woman uses extremely risky teleporter technology to allow her daughter to come to term, are tonally closer to horror and more attuned to the And Other Monsters part of the collection’s title. “Helmet” nods to Harlan Ellison’s fatalistic “I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream” (1967) but is less relentlessly grim, focusing on a sibling relationship and the importance of storytelling. The weaponizing of teleportation in “Blood Memory” brought to mind David D. Levine’s recent “Command and Control” (2017), the mother-daughter story itself evoking shades of The Babadook (2014) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). Also drifting into horror, “Foul Weather” sings a chilling narrative melody with the refrain “foul weather breeds foul deeds”, and in one key scene reminded me of The Twilight Zone episode “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” (1963); its ending may seem overly didactic or explanatory to some. “God Mode,” like “The Blue Afternoon That Lasted Forever,” explores the psychological reality of a disintegrating world, albeit in a more impressionistic and poetic mode. “Jack, the Determined” offers an intriguing setup; I imagine many readers will guess the ending, but still enjoy the ride.

While some of the above stories share certain stylistic trademarks—precise, first-person narrators, immersive sensory descriptions, and so on—Wilson offers a few surprising and welcome deviations. “The Nostalgist” is a more Hemingway-esque, bare-bones exploration of the relationship between a Grandpa and his grandson and the role of augmented virtual reality sensors in their lives. In the episodic and somewhat picaresque “All Kinds of Proof,” a drunkard must train a mail-delivery robot, with many small-town shenanigans ensuing. “One For Sorrow” offers a nice change of pace through its historical setting.

Wilson’s background in robotics clearly informs his work at every step of the way, and it’s fascinating to see him ring ingenious variations on familiar tropes. The narrator of “Garden of Life,” sounding a bit like Jurassic Park’s (1993) Malcolm, reminds us that, “Life likes to break free and spread.” Some of my favorite moments in these stories occur when this proposition is pitted against the difficulties of finding one’s place, such as in “Special Automatic,” or the ultimate cataclysms of nature, such as that presented in “God Mode”: “The rules of physics are splintering and the foundation of rational thinking is dissolving like a half-remembered dream”. This clash between life’s—mind you, not necessarily human life’s—resilience and the ravages of the world makes for poignant and memorable narratives.

Read more by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro


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