ELEMENTAL (Calico Series)

Elemental
(Calico Series)
Two Lines Press — 9th March 2021
ISBN: 9781949641110
— Paperback — 240 pp.
Cover Design: Crisis


The eight stories of this anthology span the globe and language, but also span a wide range of approaches to the Elemental theme. Most approach the term from in the classical sense of the Four Elements: Earth, Wind, Fire, Water, but others also incorporate actual physical elements from the Periodic Table. Though not ever speculative, the literary tales frequently incorporate magical realism into the plots, with nods to mythology. Some of the authors chose to make the elements into something akin to characters themselves. Many place the elemental theme into the central turning point of the plot or character development. Others treat the theme of elemental more subtly, and some also approach it in broad terms of how humanity is impacted as a part of nature – even when humanity tries to bend nature to its will.

In this sense Elemental is very much an ecological anthology, a look at how humans impact the abiotic environment and vice versa. Like all literature, it’s also at heart an investigation of humans, their interactions and foibles. More particularly to the anthology’s theme, it’s often about humans trying to find connection and freedom in the natural world.

The stories span vastly different styles, but all appear beautifully rendered into English. Each story begins with a title page, featuring a duo-toned photo and a quote from the story that both connect to the Elemental theme. Most enjoyably, the quote is rendered not just in the English translation, but in the original language script as well.

I enjoyed and appreciated some stories more than others, of course, but I would not say there’s a bad story in this bunch. For most it’s their first appearance in English, but from what I’ve read elsewhere, many are actually excerpts from novel-length works. In retrospect after reading, this isn’t surprising, as many of these worked for me as themed mood pieces, but the ‘plots’ often felt unresolved, fragmentary. I dislike excerpts for precisely this reason. On the other hand, I can give a pass to excerpting in this case of literature in translation, given the full texts are otherwise just not accessible to me. This has given me a chance to discover several new voices. However, now let’s get the actual full works published. I wish the editors (who are the editors by the way? – it’s not actually credited anywhere) had indicated when works were excerpts or not. An appendix does provide nice biographies on the authors and their translators.

On to thoughts on the individual selections:

“Precious Stones” by Erika Kobayashi, translated from the Japanese by Brian Bergstrom — The anthology starts with the longest work, one of the best, and one representative of the varied styles and approaches to the elemental theme. Its length is particularly well used to explore a varied complexity beyond what the other shorter works here have room to offer. It’s a hard one to summarize. A woman experiences vivid dreams of her deceased grandmother, who simultaneously in those past moments has visions of a future granddaughter there regarding her. The two seem linked by an inherited jewel, the last real remnant of a jeweler family that previously lost all. With her family beset with cancer across generations, the woman, her mother, and her sisters visit a spa/shrine with a radium pool that is fabled to cure all sorts of ailments. But the sisters also trade urban legend tails of an ageless man who wanders a housing development near their home and tunnels being drilled into the Earth. A man who it is said can also help cure diseases through sex. How does this all come together? You’ll have to read; it is fantastic. The theme tackles themes of family, illness, and inheritance in a cultural context that references a famous, mythical poet who is linked to the shrine. It introduces elements that crop up in other stories in the collection: the magical realism, nods to mythology, and of course approaches to the theme of elements earth and water.

“Dog Rose in the Wind, the Rain, the Earth” by Farkhondeh Aghaei, translated from the Persian by Michelle Quay — After meeting an Iranian man while abroad, a woman returns home to familial expectations that she will marry him. The parents of the couple arrange her to visit the home of his parents and make a good impression, despite her lack of enthusiasm. During a visit, a sudden storm and flash flood sweep her away to the banks of a river, where other moss-covered women have been deposited. What begins as a very conventional story goes into fantastical, symbolic directions with a feminist viewpoint. A later story uses a similar idea of natural climatic elements sweeping someone away.

“Ankomst” by Gøhril Gabrielsen, translated from the Norwegian by Deborah Dawkin — A touching fragment featuring a woman who has been deposited at the Northern edges of the world, 100s of kilometers from any other human contact, to study birds and climatic patterns. Despite this isolation, she keeps contact with her partner who is scheduled to soon join her there, but she also uses this isolation to become reawakened by the natural world and its staggering power and beauty.

“We Have Lived Here Since We Were Born” by Andreas Moster, translated from the German by Rachel Farmer — A man visits a mining operation to oversee/check up on their status/progress. This is another example of a story that starts somewhat conventionally, but proceeds into directions increasingly surreal and perhaps magical. It also is one heavily influenced by mythology. The man arrives accompanied by a group of women who hold much of his attention, but then as he sees more of the mining operation, his focus turns to a ferryman there on the site. The story climaxes with a scheduled blasting at the mine that wrecks havoc and a howling (an element in common here with the final story in the collection). In the final pages the mountain itself becomes personified as a character. It’s a strange story, and I wish I got the mythological references more, but it also serves well for the themes of humanity trying to plunder the Earth and the effects.

“Lalana” by Michèle Rakotoson, translated from the French by Allison M. Charette — One of at least two stories in the collection particularly tied to location in a way that stresses how much a local landscape can change over time. Yet, some things never change. This story, set in the author’s native Madagascar, touches (among other things) on AIDS and its effects on society and individuals there. The native location (earth) and how it affects people touches the Elemental theme here, but in a way so to does HIV as a natural element of ecology.

“Jamshid Khan” by Bakhtiyar Ali, translated from the Kurdish by Basir Borhani and Shirzad Alipour — A second story with a prcharacter being swept away. In this case a man, a political prisoner and uncle of the story’s narrator, who escapes prison and subsequent troubles by simply catching his emaciated frame up in the wind like a kite to blow away. Similar to Aghaei’s prior story, it’s a story of politically symbolic magical realism.

“Place Memory” by Dorota Brauntsch, translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye — Like “Lalana” this story also has a strong sense of place. Brauntsch touches more firmly and simply on the concept that humans can alter landscapes into things unrecognizable. It’s a melancholy story on things that can be lost, but also sweet in terms of memory that can still be held and ways that environment can still persist despite alteration. More of a mood piece than any other in the collection, but one of my favorite offerings.

“The Weather Woman” by Tamar Weiss-Gabbay, translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Cohen — A story that again touches on the theme of how the natural world resists human attempts at taming. In this case it revolves around the concept of a weather forecaster, how meteorologists can understandably get things wrong. But the general population refuses to accept the unpredictable nature of … well, nature … and demands our advanced civilization should bend things to 100% accurate foresight if not absolute control. A town facing flooding installs a pipeline to help prevent disasters, and the meteorologist becomes involved more in this when the engineering infrastructure ends up producing an annoying howling they want gone.

This is the first offering from the Calico Series put out by Two Lines Press and the NEA that I’ve read, but it is the third to be published in their roughly year-old, biannual series.

“While each Calico book will zoom in on specific styles, topics, and regions, the series will build into a composite portrait of today’s vast and rich literary landscape. What’s more, Calico books explore aspects of the present moment without the usual limitations of book publishing: genre, form, style, or a single author. We asked ourselves: What would we like to read that’s not being published? The result is Calico. We hope you enjoy it too.”

—Sarah Coolidge, Associate Editor

I’ll have to go back and read the first (Chinese speculative fiction), and though I’m uninterested in the second, poetry fans should appreciate its new Arabic poetry selections. The fourth volume, due out in September 2021 is Cuíer, a collection of Queer Brazil writing (fiction, poetry, and nonfiction alike). It can be preordered here, and I’ll look forward to checking the fiction and nonfiction in it out at least.


APEX MAGAZINE Issue 122 (Mar./Apr. 2021) Edited by Jason Sizemore


A really stellar issue from Apex again for these two months. Aside from the interactive story I had no interest in (so cannot speak on) there is not one disappointing story here.

“The Amazing Exploding Women of the Early Twentieth Century” by A.C. Wise — Two actresses in the early silent era of film find they share pyrokinetic abilities that enable them to set themselves on fire without harm. A useful talent for an era where many did their own stunts; also a talent that can be turned against abusive powers in the industry. The main story is bookended by short sections set in the recent present, with one of the women relating things to a granddaughter (if my memory serves in details). I always get appreciation/enjoyment from stories about film, including the silent era, which I love. The only downside to this story is the length: longer than I felt it needed. The framing scenes add some extra themes, but not sure they were essential or needed.

“Las Girlfriends Guide to Subversive Eating” by Sabrina Vourvoulias — An ‘interactive’ story with which I chose to not interact.

“Barefoot and Midnight” by Sheree Renée Thomas — A standout story of the issue due to its subject matter and power, but above all because it is written so amazingly well, horrific and melancholic and beautiful all at once. Like a lamentation the story surges with righteous wailing against injustices. It shows how pain and sacrifice can continue even amid processes of healing, and suggests that sometimes revenge is just as damaging as an original hurt.

“Black Box of the Terraworms” by Barton Aikman — Terraforming machines sent by humans to an alien planet consume some of the native organisms and through it learn from the creature’s memories of the planet’s previous inhabitants that worshiped the creatures. An inventive story of biotechnology and ecological themes, but which then also takes of mythical tones. Fascinating grand-scale fiction.

“A Love That Burns Hot Enough to Last: Deleted Scenes from a Documentary” by Sam J. Miller — A series of interviews about a pop singer and a Christian parent who campaigns against her music, being convinced she is in reality a witch. Almost always enjoy Miller’s work, and this was no exception. I feared that the stereotypically bigoted Christian would make me sour, but Miller actually handles it well. (I still wish more authors would introduce Christians who AREN’T this way at all.) The story more speaks to themes of hero worship and unreasonable expectations that fans place on talent.

“If Those Ragged Feet Won’t Run” by Annie Neugebauer — A fantasy where a mother and newborn try and escape from bird-like monsters that kill those who stray from the village. Great atmosphere and tense plotting here. It recalled to my mind the thoughts I’ll sometimes have watching nature programs where I see a predator about to strike down prey, a cute little juvenile who’s just trying to survive. But then after the predator fail and I celebrate continued life, the camera cuts to the starving offspring of the predator that now have no food.

“She Searches for God in the Storm Within” by Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali  — A reprint originally published in Sword and Sonnet, edited by Aiden Doyle, Rachael K. Jones, and E. Catherine Tobler. It features a powerful female protagonist surviving against harsh unjust treatment. The theme of the anthology where it appeared was “women and non-binary battle poets”. I’m not a fan of the poet aspect, but this is another story of righteous anger, but taken in a more positive way, speaking to the unleashing of a ‘storm’ of suppressed rage that women (and women of color in particular) become told to endure.

“The Eight-Thousanders” by Jason Sanford — I never expected to like a story about climbing Mount Everest so much. Turning it into a horror featuring a vampire who ‘prey’s on those who succumb to the mountain is brilliant, and Sandford uses that plot to explore familiar vampire tale themes in novel ways, as well as cultural aspects of the mountain climbers and the natives who make a living catering to them. The story originally appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine at the end of last year.

With editorial by Jason Sizemore, nonfiction articles “Jimi Hendrix Sang It” by ZZ Claybourne and “Telling Stories of Ghosts” by Wendy N. Wagner, book reviews by A.C. Wise, and interviews with Sabrina Vourvoulias and Annie Neugebauer by Andrea Johnson, and of cover artist Thomas Tan by Russell Dickerson. Cover design by Justin Stewart.


CASTLE IN THE AIR by Donald E. Westlake

Castle in the Air
(Hard Case Crime Series #148)
By Donald E. Westlake
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — 30th March 2021
ISBN: 9781785657221
— Paperback — 208 pp.


A beautiful woman named Lida from the (fictitious) South African nation of Yerbadoro has come to ‘master criminal’ Eustache Dent with a proposition. Escobar Lynch, the president of her nation has been ousted in a coup. The former dictator faces exile to keep his life, but cannot bring any of the tremendous fortune he has amassed off exploitation of the masses.

Lida has inside information that Escobar has a cunning plan to get his riches outside of the country: smuggling the fortune hidden in the bricks of his castle, an architectural attraction that is being disassembled and shipped to Paris to be reassembled for a special international exposition. Lida wants her people’s money returned to the people, but is willing to split the treasure with Dent, the nefarious thief who might just be able to pull such a heist off: taking a whole castle.

The novel begins with Dent starting to assemble his international group of thieves needed to coordinate such a complicated caper. He enlists a top thief from England, France, Germany, and Italy and instructs them each to recruit goons to help them. Each team is to simultaneously steal the castle blocks (edifices) as they are transported en route to Paris. None of the criminals are too happy about half the spoils going to Lida and back to to Yerbadoro, but Dent assures the team leaders that they will be cheating her out of any money as soon as they are able.

There are a couple problems. First, none of the thieves share a common language, so coordinating proves to be quite a challenging task! A bigger issue is that no one knows with part of the disassembled castle will hold the loot until after all are separately stolen and searched. Once one team discovers their pieces of the structure hold the valuables, what’s stopping them from taking it all and running? Is there any trust among criminals? Or will the fear of being chased by their fellow colleagues be a deterrent against greed? When there’s so much money involved, none of them can manage to say no, and all simply push doubts aside.

As I started reading Castle in the Air I became reminded of Rowan Atkinson’s The Black Adder, particularly a first series episode where the Prince Edmund goes throughout England to enlist the most ruthless bandits and criminals for help in seizing the throne. Things don’t go as planned. After all, you can’t really expect criminals to play well together.

The novel proceeds similarly, with farcical takes on each nation’s thieves that includes silly sounding names and clichéd eccentricities, all for comedic effect. With a fast moving pace the story proceeds through all the introductions and then spends a chapter on the actual theft. Then the really zany aspects of the caper begin, the double, triple, and quadruple crosses between each of the international teams. The humor of idiots trying to deal with the language barriers gets amped up through this all, until things finally settle with the loot ‘won’ by one and the others discovering themselves with unexpected successes of a different kind.

Castle in the Air is a much lighter sort of fare from Hard Case Crime than normal, but that doesn’t make it less entertaining. Just in a different way. There is very little violence, more just inept bumbling. No one dies, they are just humiliated. There is also very little sex or femme fatale type interaction, and brief bits that are present are also mostly played for comedy by poking fun at the stereotypes, and making the playfully seductive language extremely corny.

The success of the novel then is really going to depend on the reader’s potential enjoyment of a silly caper romp. It’s a pulp crime version of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. It may not be as laugh out loud funny, but some chuckles may come. The other potential interest for Castle in the Air may come for fans of the author. The prolific Westlake first had this novel published in 1980 and it’s pretty much disappeared since then. Hard Case Crime does a great job reissuing forgotten works such as this. It’s certainly not Westlake’s best, or usual kind of offering, but it is a worthwhile quick read, a curiosity worth a rediscover by genre fans.


ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION AND FACT Vol. CXXXI #s 3 and 4 (March/April 2021) Edited by Trevor Quachri


Another overall impressive issue from Analog, which is nicely becoming more diverse and balanced in their offerings. I wouldn’t say they have lost the core mission of the hard SF that they tend to go for, but they have broadened the representation of authors and interpretations of what that means beyond what had in past become a somewhat cliched standard. A wider range of readers will find things to enjoy in issues these days.

“Invasive Species” by Catherine Wells — The wife of a man goes missing on an alien world where humans are kept in a small enclave by the native intelligent population to limit human damage to the ecosystem (and also supposedly for human safety.) When the missing wife cannot be found anywhere, the man seeks permission to go search beyond the enclave’s walls, and takes in a native nanny to watch his newborn while off looking. The ideas in the story are wonderful, and it’s entertaining. However, by its end I was left wondering about the alien actions and I can’t help but think a lot of action/lack of communication occurred simply so the story could happen.

“Flash Mob” by Meg Pontecorvo — Too much science fiction spends efforts being speculative or focusing on technology. I adore a nice story simply focusing on doing science. In this one, a researcher tries to balance single parenthood with the demands of academic research. Her research into squid behaviors allows an opportunity to observe a rare, inexplicable mass of Japanese squid gathering off the coast of CA. She thinks there may be something to their bioluminescent signaling. Fantastic ending for this as well.

“Tail Call Optimization” by Tony Ballantyne — AI stories aren’t inherently my favorite. However, this one manages to put a spin and unexpected twists into the story to make it very entertaining and thought provoking. An apparently malfunctioning alien AI comes into contact with a human intelligence that forces reconsideration of the situation.

“Damocles” by Sean McMullen — An alternate history story of higher technology in WWII, specifically an invention that could be a devastatingly dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. Those that like this genre of story will likely really enjoy this one. It’s written well, but didn’t really capture my interest.

“Problem Landing” by Sean Monaghan — A story of Mars, drawing inspiration from private-funded space exploration corporation like Musk’s SpaceX. As the title suggests, landing on the red planet goes awry. The existing Martian colonists try and come up with a rescue plan for any survivors among the new arrivals. A classic sort of Analog story where human ingenuity is needed to solve a technical problem. It works well as that, but I didn’t find it as compelling on the level of the characters so much. Hard SF fans should really love it though.

“The Trashpusher of Planet 4” by Brenda Kalt — Excellent story that balances seriousness and humor, the familiar and unexpected, with things alien and human. It’s told from the point-of-view of Awi Trashpusher Nonnumber, a lower caste worker on a spaceship traveling through our solar system. Though Awi sits as low-rung as one of his People can, he aspires to more. While his fellow species members give him no respect, the ship’s AI starts giving him greater tasks in secret. The protagonist may be alien in appearance, but the social and personal struggles of the tale are all very familiar to us humans.

“It’s Cold on Europa” by Filip Wiltgren — Two isolated ice miners on Europa live with artificial constructs of their spouses, which have personalities/memories updated as part of the slow communication from their real counterparts based elsewhere in the solar system. The protagonist becomes increasingly concerned that her spousal construct is acting colder and distant, but she has no indications of why. A really fantastic story that postulates new iterations of time-old communication problems in relationships. It takes the concept of ‘ghosting’ and anxiety to larger scales.

“The Acheulean Gift” by Matthew Claxton — A camp houses children born from a now defunct program that used genetic engineering to express genes of extinct humanoid species (like Denisovans and Neanderthals) in H. sapiens. It’s an interesting, and good, story that explores the biological basis of things like cooperation, tool use and problem solving, but also then of fear of the other and racism. I wish the story delved into the genetics in more detail with more believability though.

“If a Tree Doesn’t Fall” by Jerry Oltion — A hiker in Wyoming comes across a floating tree, and he investigates how the heck this could possibly be happening. Nothing much to this short story at all, but a pleasant enough diversion.

“Thh*sh*thhh” by Aimee Ogden — Another story with not much to it, but just the right amount given this is flash fiction. A human researcher (xenoanthropologist?) attends the exceedingly rare funeral for a member of an extremely long-lived (practically immortal) alien species. At this she learns the painful emotional downside to their exceptional life spans. High quality flash fiction.

“John Henry Was a Steel Driving Man” by Shane Halbach — Another classic Analog problem-solving story, set on a space station, where workers have to deal with potential disaster. Complicating matters are divisions among the poorly treated workers who want to strike, and the corporate powers above them. Sometimes the actions of fellow co-workers can make the situation worse. If not great, a decent story that preaches the virtues of hard work that one takes pride in, and attention to detail, no matter the situation.

“Recollection” by Elise Stephens — When the status and destination of many stories in Analog can be known from very early on, it’s nice to have a more slow building story included here that at first puts the reader in uncertain waters. Set in a barren dystopia, a government representative (Harvester) arrives in town to look into aid that they might need. A teenage girl there becomes intrigued by technology the woman uses that holds memory and images of the time before. An interesting look at the ethics of uneasy decisions.

“The Burning Lands” by Tom Jolly — Strange, seemingly spontaneous wildfires are breaking out and killing people. A detective and arson investigator try and solve the mystery. For methanogenesis playing such a key role in this, was very disappointed archeaea were not properly discussed in such a ‘hard’ SF venue.

“Hillman, Charles Dallas, Age: 35, No Partner, Parents: Deceased” by Ron Collins — A former finance broker on the run decides to enter into a clinical trial to go off the grid with free room and board. The brain scans they do on him have unexpected consequences for someone trying to maintain a low profile. An ironic cyberpunkish kind of story that felt as jumbled by its end as the protagonist seems to be.

“I Have Loved the Stars Too Fondly” by James Van Pelt — A very short story (flash?) where a social program provides the homeless with a new chance and home as lunar colonists. Among other possible interpretations, the tale illustrates how such programs can be mistrusted and also taken advantage of. Parallels to how different societal groups react to SARS-CoV-2 vaccination spring to mind.

“The Pond Who Sang” by Charles Hand — Many have combined the mathematical aspects of music with concepts of neural networks (biological or other), such as Hofstadter. Here, Hand puts such musings into a very inventive short SF. I’m not sure this works as is without further development, beyond being intriguing and a speculative ‘mood’ piece.

“Second Hand Destinies” by Marie Vibbert — SF with symbiotic creatures helping animate a humanoid body aren’t new, but Vibbert does interesting things with the concept in this story (more parasitic perhaps) of a small family eking out survival on a dilapidated space station. Vividly written and great characters.

“The Shadow of His Wings” by Ray Nayler — Transfer of consciousness into animals (that still allows total control) forms the speculative crux of this story that explores issues of obligation and power. Strange, but written in a way that makes it seem completely ordinary.

Includes science fact article “From Atmospheric Rivers to Super Typhoons: The Future Looks Bright for Weather Disaster Fans” by Christina De La Rocha and poems “Mostly Hydrogen” by Jack Martin and “First Scientist (?-?) by Jessy Randall. With guest editorial “Better Than Being Fossilized!” by Ian Watson, The Alternative View by John G. Cramer and Guest Alternative View by John J. Vester. Reference Library by Don Sakers and Upcoming Events by Anthony Lewis.


CROSSROADS by Laurel Hightower

Crossroads
By Laurel Hightower
Off Limits Press — August 2020
ISBN: 9780578723563
— Paperback — 110 pp.
Cover Art: Alfred Obare


When Chris’ son Trey dies in a car accident, a part of her is taken along with him by a rapacious, inescapable grief. Chris continues though her life keeping an emotional distance from other relationships, including a friend/neighbor, Dan, with whom she shares potential romantic interest. She regularly visits the roadside site of Trey’s crash, leaving trinkets in memorial and conversing with her son in her mind. Even upon returning home from that ritual, the echoes of his voice continue in her mind, a whisper of his physical reality now vanished.

Until one day the conversations become more difficult, as if Trey’s voice has gone silent in her mind, even if not memory. Panicked with further loss, she awakens in the middle of the night to see her dead son standing in the streetlight below her bedroom window, waving to her. A brief moment later and the ghost is gone. Chris comes to speculate this change might be linked to a prick on her finger that happened while visiting Trey’s memorial, and a drop of blood that fell to the earth there, beside the tree where he died.

Chris thinks about those stories of magic, blood, and sacrifice that she’s heard. And wonders. Can she keep Trey returning to her? If so, what horrific forces are behind it, and what will be the cost? And could it be worth it? Her grief and pain demand that she try, especially as she begins to find her actions may be linked to Trey’s peace and rest.

I don’t know as I’ve ever read a story that is so unflinchingly heart-wrenching and brutal as Crossroads. Hightower is not telling a new type of horror story here. But she does make a well-trod horror story of sacrifice into something that is far more uncompromising, focused, and honest than any I have ever seen before. As a reader I kept wanting her to give clear answers to the forces behind Trey’s ghostly appearances. How much is in Chris’ head? Does a demon have control of Trey, and if so why? Or is this apparition of Trey actually a demon? Hightower doesn’t go down any of those roads of ‘easy’ fulfillment and instead stays centered on the heart of this novel, how a mother handles grief and love.

Now I’m not even a parent, let alone a mother, but Hightower makes Chris’ anguish relatable and felt on a more general human level for any compassionate reader. As Chris becomes pulled more into the belief that her sacrifices will not just give her comfort, but will also provide Trey relief, she willingly ups the intensity to give more of herself. Though she questions whether her actions will even work or not, she barely hesitates to go on because the simple matter is that it doesn’t matter. If there’s even a slight chance that Trey will be helped by this, she will do it. The reader looks upon this and wonders if this is real, or delusion, and thus is thrust into this with as much uncertainty as Chris. The reader doesn’t have enough information to judge her, and is left only with the ability to read on with pained sorrow and the sense that they might be pulled down a similar role for someone they love.

Horror is a genre that is not just for entertainment and scares, but also a way of approaching trauma and mortality, of symbolizing difficult and draining emotions within a realm of the fantastic. Hightower does this while showing that sometimes people never can fully escape or recover from that trauma. It’s an ugly and difficult truth. While Chris and her love for Trey form the core of the novella, Crossroads also forms a story of how others can love and support people who live amid such devastating trauma and grief.

The father of Trey, Chris’ ex-husband also is going through grief over the loss of his son. The former couple remain on relatively good speaking terms, even after the ex’s marriage to a new woman. They avoid confronting each other with things that might overwhelm the other, yet make it clear that they are each there to support. At one point in the novella, the ex-husband visits Chris and tells her about similar dreams/voices of Trey that also haunt him, voicing concern for each of them.

A central pillar to Chris’ support network is Dan, a man who listens rather than quickly acts to try to ‘solve’ things. He loves Chris, and knows she’s equally attracted to him, but can’t handle much from a relationship at the time. Dan gives Chris everything, and only, what she needs of him. As he watches her destroy herself, for ‘only’ a glimmer of hope that it might be real/benefit Trey’s soul, he still supports her in every mood. He does his best to prevent her sacrifices from consuming or ending her life completely. But, he also realizes he lacks the power/ability to ‘save’ her. She’s an autonomous adult individual who seems perfectly clear-thinking despite the fantastic, unbelievable situation. Ultimately, the decisions are hers, and he can only do his best to be there for her in them.

How phenomenally difficult that is. Dan ends up seeming to doubt himself, questioning if maybe he should do more. But ultimately, his love for Chris is much as Chris’ for Trey. As devastating as a place that love leads, together they prevent it from dragging them into despair or fear.

No one gets to end happy here, and for that reason Crossroads concludes as a very ‘difficult’, harrowing novella. But one that therein perfectly encapsulates its themes and the emotions it dares to explore. Horror readers are typically willing to allow fiction to help them explore those darker realms, and Hightower does an exceptional job at facilitating that.


Tara Bush Cover Art for Luna Press Harvester Series Debut Collection by Steven J Dines

Upcoming from Luna Press Publishing

Cover Art by Tara Bush

In the most recent mailing from Luna Press Publishing I noticed this stunning cover art image by Tara Bush for an upcoming entry in their Harvester Series, a debut collection from Steven J Dines.

From Tara Bush writing about her cover art:

“I knew early on I wanted to use the colours and tones to portray emotion and feelings, and during the process, I allowed the colours to wash organically over the face. Colour was mainly applied digitally, enabling me to keep the detail of the underdrawing. I knew I wanted yellow tones in the image and the blue washes felt right as the artwork was nearing an end.

The result is a combination of traditional and digital, which I think can work in harmony with each other. Steven’s writing is so evocative and haunting, that it really helps translate those deep emotions to the page for an artist.”

You can read more about this cover on the Luna Press Blog, or on the artist’s site.

I’m also looking forward to this book. From the publisher:

Look Where You Are Going Not Where You Have Been is a stunning debut collection of dark literary fiction exploring grief, regret, and hope. A family is torn apart by tragedy and misadventure, their future creaking under the weight of judgment. Old men play at being ghosts while a young boy sees real ones wherever he turns. A wandering immortal desperately seeks an end to his pain. Intimate, unflinching, and poignant, these eleven tales of the broken and the unmade include the two previously unpublished novellas, dragonland and This House is Not Haunted.”

You can read more about the collection here.

FARTHEST SOUTH by Ethan Rutherford

Farthest South
By Ethan Rutherford
A Strange Object (Deep Vellum Press) — 13th April 2021
ISBN: 9781646050482
— Paperback — 184 pp.
Cover Design: Nayon Cho; Illustrations: Anders Nilsen


I have such a fondness for surreal short fiction, stories on the edge of familiar and unsettling. If dreams are the product of the mind’s processing of events and emotions, dream-like fiction represents an ideal format for writers to pierce the veils of the human condition, the assumptions and ignorance of our everyday interactions that shroud from insight. In Rutherford’s new collection Farthest South, his stories provide a foundation for magical lyrical prose intermingling with a frugal simplicity. Like bedtime stories, his style cuts to the core of the mundane while still meandering into asides, conveying tantalizing flashes of the fantastic.

Rutherford frames the collection with two stories that integrate that concept of a child’s bedtime story into the plot itself, with the same characters. Both are outstanding stories that start and conclude Farthest South in a perfect way, introducing readers to Rutherford’s style and leaving them with uncertainties to ponder. In some respect, the stories feel more unsettling after their conclusion, as they stick with you.

“Ghost Story” (originally published in Tin House) begins things, where a father is asked by his son to tell a scary story before bed. Prior to this ghost story getting underway, the father and mother discuss normal marital concerns; the father considers the art of telling a story, how to strike the right balance between something being ‘scary’ for a child, but not over so, and how to still include a valuable lesson. Soon the story settles in with the father telling his story of the ‘Seal Woman’, a witch-like creature he encountered when younger while working one fishing season on his dad’s boat. “Ghost Story” is two stories in one, meta-fiction in a way; though I enjoyed all the parts (the relationship side between the parents, the father-son interaction, the Seal Woman tale) I still am not sure how they all fit together.

The final story in the collection, “The Diver” (originally published as “The Soul Collector” in Conjunctions) returns with the same story for another ocean-set tale featuring ‘Old Gr’mer’. Shorter than “Ghost Story”, “The Diver” doesn’t feature the mother-father interactions as much, and that tighter focus made it seem more cohesive in comparison.

These, and the other stories in Farthest South, are reminiscent of fairy tales in style, but with important functional distinctions. Most focus on adults, over children without guardians. And they aren’t written to convey a morale, so much as invite insights, subtly. The stories all revolve around family matters, the anxieties of people not acting just for themselves, but also for a unit, a pack. “Fable” takes this most literally in a story where a fox couple without any kits of their own adopt a human child. However, like in “Ghost Story”, this fable becomes nestled within a larger framework of friends coming together. One, a translator and storyteller, relates the fox fable to her friends.

The uncertainties and unease of families, of parenthood in particular, crop up again and again in Rutherford’s stories. “Family, Happiness” delves into that specific theme in a very short, but lush and emotive handful of pages. “The Baby” (originally published in Post Road) uses the same theme from an opposite, almost nightmarish, perspective. A couple bring their feverish child into the hospital emergency room:

“The weather outside is feral and snow-clotted. And when the doctor says hold the baby, they do.”

In probably my favorite story of the collection, Rutherford depicts the frightening unease of any patient putting their trust into a doctor, having no choice but to do what the doctor says, even amid doubts or evidence that the doctor can’t be expert in all. The story is the most absurd of the collection, with details that will ring familiar to anyone who has ever faced a medical bureaucracy that seems to prioritize everything but patient care and communication.

“Holiday”, approaches the parenthood theme from yet another angle, the haunting of possibilities and chance encounters. This eerie tale almost reads like a horror story, but never goes into full darkness.

A couple of stories do focus on the childhood perspective of the family relationship. In “Pools, I am a Hawk” a young girl goes with her mother to a fancy club where the woman’s more affluent friends have invited them as guests. There, the girl goes off on her own and encounters other children who think she’s a ghost of a dead classmate. In “Angus and Annabelle”, two siblings deal with the trauma of a lost mother. Amid a flutter of sparrows, Annabelle practices a skill that their mother had taught them, making stick-and-berry dolls that disquiet Angus (and perhaps the reader.)

The title story of the collection, “Farthest South” first published in BOMB can still be read there. It’s a fitting one to pick for the title of the entire book, as this story combines many of Rutherford’s elements into one tale. It’s surreal and has bits of comic absurdity, yet also is chillingly haunting. It also is a story nestled within another, though done far more quietly. It recounts the experiences of a man across the inhospitable terrains of Antarctica, a survivor among children and animals that inexplicably were among an expedition team. The survivors are plagued by the ghostly skulls of those from the team who died. But the man has a companion to help him in this ordeal: a talking Emperor Penguin named Franklin. Told from the perspective of a grandchild of this man, only a brief line(s) of the story suggest that what the tale in reality represents. While that detail may not be essential, it is a touch that lends added layers of appreciation to “Farthest South”.

Layers of appreciation is something that all of Farthest South offers readers. It’s imminently readable, neither dense nor pretentious. It capitalizes on key tricks of genre fiction to build something that’s certainly more in the literary camp – entertaining but giving things to intellectually unpack and ponder, even over multiple reads.

Ecotheo Review, a blog on ecology, theology, and art hosts an interview with Ethan Rutherford on Farthest South and his other work. It offers additional insights into the collection and what readers might take from the stories. It’s something that could be read after reading the book, but might also be useful to potential readers who still haven’t made up their minds if this is for them. There are also multiple upcoming events with Rutherford, including one at Madison’s Books in Seattle. If you happen to live near there, you can find more information on the event here.


LOVE. AN ARCHAEOLOGY by Fábio Fernandes

Love. An Archaeology
By Fábio Fernandes
Luna Press Publishing — 26th March 2021
ISBN: 9781913387426
— Paperback — 164 pp.
Cover: Francesca T Barbini


What exactly is a translation? For a multilingual writer, does every piece become a sort of translation within the creator’s mind, or is each story pre-filtered though one linguistic route of the brain?

These question came to mind as I read Love. An Archaeology, the first collection of short fiction from Brazilian writer Fábio Fernandes, just released from Luna Press as part of their “Harvester Series.” The books in this series intentionally gather a collection of old and new works from a writer, along with authorial reflections as an appendix. For Fernandes’ stories, language becomes another layer to that harvest of past and new works.

Two of the stories in Love. An Archaeology were originally written in Portuguese and translated into English by Fernandes for the collection. One of those two was translated into Spanish for its original publication. One, Fernandes wrote in English for submission to an anthology. When it didn’t make the cut, he then translated into Portuguese and published that. Though the majority of the stories in the collection were written and published originally in English, they still exude an aura of being cultural hybrids. While the characters and plot do contribute, Fernandes’ English also adds to that flavor. Though technically correct, he often turns his phrasing in a way that feels slightly off from that of a native speaker. And that is absolutely wonderful, fitting perfectly with the unexpected turns of his stories, and those moments of surreal wonder particularly found in his forays into New Weird.

But as Paul Jessup notes in his introduction to the collection, the stories here are more than a literature of atmosphere. They are “an exploration of idea with depth. Each story is poetic, at times spiritual and transcendent.” That depth permeates into realms both emotional and intellectual. Love. An Archaeology will make you think. Though pointing out the uniqueness of Fernandes, Jessup also compares his writing to that of Gene Wolfe, Jorge Luis Borges, Eugène Ionesco, Jeffery Ford, and Ted Chiang.

The name that pops to my mind first, however, is Samuel R. Delany. In part that’s because I first encountered Fernandes with “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip, edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell. Reading Love. An Archaeology I increasingly noticed the shared fundamental elements between Delany and Fernandes: the intensity, the intellect, the curiosity, the subtle complexity exploring a basic idea. Both can leave readers disoriented one moment, only to lead them to startling revelation the next. Throughout that all, a love for – and power over – language.

I didn’t appreciate all this when reading “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip. I ended up relatively ambivalent to the story then, certainly not disliking it, but not enjoying either. Starting Love. An Archaeology I at first felt similarly. The opening story “Seven Horrors” revolves around a fascinating premise taking the idea of time travel in truly unique and mind-bending directions. A man simply called the Time Traveller and a woman known as the Assassin hop across the eons of time, locked together in an immortal struggle for/against death and love for one another. In this tale Fernandes takes the contradictions inherent to time travel stories and simply runs with the trope’s bewildering anti-logic. The framework becomes an opportunity to meditate on themes of spirituality, love, and persistence.

On the one hand, I loved the concepts of the story and its gentle luscious prose, which contras with the apocalyptic settings and chaos through time. On the other hand, I found it dense to get into with a formality to its tone that almost clashes with the personal nature of the character interactions at its heart. A lot of the references were lost on me. (The first section of the collection contains four stories ‘to the memory of Harlan Ellison’ and this must be Ellisonesque in some way I wouldn’t be able to grasp.) It’s a hard story to start things off with, yet appropriate and easier to appreciate as one digs deeper into the collection and becomes familiar with what Fernandes is doing.

Aside from showing how he approaches classic speculative fiction themes, “Seven Horrors” introduces readers to the themes of metaphysics/spirituality that Fernandes draws upon, especially Buddhism. Both “Eleven Stations” in Stories for Chip and “Seven Horrors” that opens Love. An Archaeology represent titles that invite speculation for numerical symbolism. Fernandes uses this type of title in additional stories in this collection, and dates. These numbers are yet another example of the cultural depths that he digs for details in his stories. Numbers mean something equally as much as words, and they are in some ways the purest form of science fiction, even more so than physics as they underlie the language of the universe and the sciences.

By the second story of Love. An Archaeology, I became hooked. Its plot is more conventional, yet still contains the elements that Fernandes plays with so effectively. It’s also a fantasy/horror as opposed to a science fiction, and I feel they are so much easier for me to get into. “The Emptiness in the Heart of All Things” may be my favorite story of the collection. It draws from the Matinta Pereira folklore of the Brazilian ‘northern wilderness’, but Fernandes works with political and feminist themes inspired by the legend of this witch-like creature, and he casts it into a crime plot. Though it contains elements of Weird, the linear narrative gives the early reader a bit more stability in navigating Fernandes’ references and themes. I wish he wrote more in this genre, because this is exceptional.

Though still in the section dedicated to Ellison, “The Remaker” is a meta-tribute to Borges, a near-future remake of Borges’ “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.” The original apparently being a story about a fellow (Menard) who recreates (not copies) Cervantes’ classic. So this is a remake of a remake concept, and we are several recursive layers deep here. Again the concept is intriguing, and now a few stories in, I had begun warming to Ferndandes’ style. As the backdrop to that, Fernandes gives his “Pierre Menard” lovers, allowing rich character development while also tapping into diversity of sex and gender. Originally published in a collection titled Outlaw Bodies, the rawness of biology, love, and sex in the story again recalls Delany. Such a wonderful ending for this story as well, and though the title has no numbers, the numerical fascination continues within chapter headings and the remade books of the plot.

A cyber-punk story that mashes up 3D printing technology with dreamscape exploration follows in “WiFi Dreams” to conclude the first section of the collection. It’s another trippy one, where I had a hard time seeing how the 3D printing idea actually integrates in.

The next two sections of stories in the collection consist of relatively shorter works. The first, dedicated to Cordwainer Smith, includes “Tales of the Obliterati”, a series of connected stories Fernandes writes about ‘lost discoveries’ and future eras where humanity faces annihilation. “Nothing Happened in 1999” is a piece of solid, if not remarkable, flash fiction. My interest really picked up for “Mycelium”, a story set in a hidden enclave of surviving humanity where a fungal symbiosis might be the key to save the human remnant. “Nine Paths to Destruction” approaches spiritual, existential matters of an individual and a species facing extinction. Beautifully and emotionally resonant.

The second of short fiction sections bears dedication to Fredric Brown and presents “Three Snapshots”, further flash fiction. Fernandes comments in the appendix that he feels very short fiction is one of his strengths, and with these I’d largely conclude. “Other Metamorphoses” is great and “Who Mourns for Washington?” is a profound take on the persistence and loss of memory.

“Archaeologies” the fourth and final section of Love. An Archaeology contains additional stories on love and includes the short story that gives the collection its title. “A Lover’s Discourse: Five Fragments and a Memory of War” returns to surreal New Weird tones, with a plot that’s hard to peg into any particular sub-genre. “The Unexpected Geographies” is notable in that it is another fantasy, darker than the prior one and more firmly in the realm of horror. Though I liked the story overall, I felt this was the most uneven and in need of further editing to make it cut more effectively.

The concluding story “Love. An Archaeology” ends things with another high point. Sisters use a new device that allows experience of alternate history timelines to discover what may have happened between their father and mother. But alternate, after all, is a relative term. The story reinforces what Fernandes excels at: taking well-worn SF ideas for a ride in new and fascinating directions. Some of those may verge into confusing dream-like realms, and others – like this one may be more standard. But they all use that platform to delve into base human relationships/emotions, like family, partner, love to see both the ecstasy and the cracks.

Fernandes is both a graduate of the prestigious Clarion West course, and a former slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine. His appreciation for classics of the SF genre and of literature, mythology, and philosophy in general should be obvious. This is a debut collection that literary speculative fiction fans should not pass up, and I believe they will look forward to seeing more from him in the future as much as I do.


A Charity Anthology from Raw Dog Screaming Press, with Proceeds to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society

From Raw Dog Screaming Press and Editor Heidi Ruby Miller

Like Sunshine After Rain:

A Charity Anthology to Benefit the
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society

I’ve just pre-ordered a copy of this anthology to support this charity, the publisher, and its contributors. Check out the information below from Raw Dog Screaming Press and consider supporting as well:

“Raw Dog Screaming Press and international award-winning editor Heidi Ruby Miller are taking pre-orders for the charity anthology LIKE SUNSHINE AFTER RAIN. Proceeds benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. The beautiful cover is by Brad Sharp. Interior illustrations by Sharon A. Ruby.

This limited edition anthology is available in lettered hardcover and numbered paperback editions. It hosts short stories, poems, and essays from 82 authors.”

Including:

  • New York Times bestsellers Jonathan Maberry and Maria V. Snyder
  • USA Today bestseller Annette Dashofy
  • International bestseller Liz Coley
  • Amazon Charts bestsellers Cary Caffrey, Sasha Dawn, and Jennifer Foehner Wells
  • Drue Heinz Literature Prize winner Randall Silvis
  • Bram Stoker Award winners Lee Murray, Christina Sng, Lucy A. Snyder, Sara Tantlinger, and Tim Waggoner
  • International Horror Guild Award winners Michael A. Arnzen and Gary Braunbeck
  • Asimov’s Readers Award winner Timons Esaias
  • Arthur J. Rooney Award winner Jason Jack Miller
  • Pittsburgh City Paper Best Local Writer winner Brian Butko
  • American Library Association Notable Book Award winner Lynn Salsi
  • Eugene V. Debs Foundation Literature Prize winner Eric Leif Davin

FROM THE FOREWORD BY HEIDI RUBY MILLER:

“When someone I loved was diagnosed with stage 4 leukemia in the middle of the pandemic, I spiraled into an existential disquiet. Everything was going wrong everywhere, and I felt helpless. The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society was there for my family in so many ways, including guidance and emotional support. I wanted to help them and also give myself purpose. I did what I do best, I wrote…and I asked others for their writing with only two requests:

It must be upbeat.

It must be under 1500 words.

I heard the groans right through my email. That’s a pretty tight word limit. And, even those writers who weren’t part of the horror scene said they didn’t exactly go for upbeat in their projects. But they all agreed to try. And something unforeseen happened. My writing friends were experimenting with forms and genres, writing out of their comfort zones, sharing personal connections to cancer, to fear, to overcoming their sadness, and they thanked me for it.

Their willingness to search for the positive became an unexpected time capsule of perseverance and pushing onward when so many of us struggled to make it through one day at a time.”

To reserve your copy of LIKE SUNSHINE AFTER RAIN, visit  http://rawdogscreaming.com/books/like-sunshine-after-rain/.

LEUKEMIA AND LYMPHOMA SOCIETY MISSION:

“Cure leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma, and improve the quality of life of patients and their families.”

https://donate.lls.org/lls/donate

LATER by Stephen King

Later
(Hard Case Crime Series #147)
By Stephen King
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — March 2021
ISBN: 9781789096491
— Paperback — 248 pp.


Does Stephen King need his new novels covered or advertised by book reviews? Probably not. Are there potential readers out there who are undecided if his writing is something they’d be interested in? Probably few. But then again, there’s likely a fair number of people out there who’ve read something by King, and would read another, just not anything. Some may have read another Hard Case Crime by him and been disappointed, and now are hesitant to go for another. So, a review still seems worthwhile to me, and hopefully will be beneficial for some.

Though he’s written three novels for the Hard Case Crime label, this is the first of them that I’ve read. From what I’ve gathered, there weren’t many big fans of the first one, The Colorado Kid. The second, Joyland, fared with better word of mouth. In my opinion, King’s newest, Later, stands as a great success: a quick, entertaining read that should appeal to King and Hard Case Crime fans alike.

As a young boy, Jamie realizes that he can see people that no others can. He sees dead people. (Though as he points out to readers, not quite like the boy in that famous M. Night Shyamalan picture.) Jamie can see and talk to the recently deceased, but only for a short period of days before their voices and form dissipate and move on to whatever comes later for these souls. During their brief existence as a remnant these ghosts seem -usually – more emotionally detached from that which interested them before. But Jamie discovers that if he poses these ghosts questions, they are compelled to respond with the truth alone. This remains inexplicable to Jamie (and convenient for the plot, though I don’t complain too strongly over that.). But this fact makes Jamie’s ability potentially very useful to someone who might want to get secrets that people attempt to take with them to the grave.

Jamie’s mother struggles to stay financially afloat as a single parent in New York City through turbulent years in her profession as a literary agent/editor. As she tries to raise Jamie and come to terms with his abilities, she also tries to keep her fastidious and eccentric writer clients appeased and productive (profitable for her as well.) Aside from Jamie and her professional client relationships, she has a NYPD cop girlfriend who is a big fan of her most famous client. The problem is, her girlfriend is also a crooked cop, looking to profit off drug distribution.

As Jamie grows up he begins to appreciate just who his mother’s ‘good friend’ Liz actually is, and feels increasing responsibility to support his mother as she has so long supported him. He also gets to know his ability and overcome the trauma of seeing ghosts of people who have just died in terrible disfiguring accidents. But, Liz’s illegal activities and a serial bomber who is terrorizing the city are about to make Jamie’s supernatural talents into a greater vulnerability than he’s experienced or appreciated.

At various points in the book Jamie reminds readers that this is a horror story. As is typical for King (and lots of the horror genre in general) the worst monsters in Later are the humans, not the supernatural boogies. Jamie wants to be normal, unencumbered by the difficulty of looking at dead people. However as the first years pass from his youngest memories, his supernatural ability becomes something completely mundane. Most of the dead people look indistinguishable from those alive. The rare grotesque cases born from a violent demise get somewhat easier to deal with as Jamie knows what to expect and can prepare himself. He has even faced the threat of an evil demonic force and come out on top. The real danger of his abilities lie in how others will exploit him.

His mother understands this when she first realizes the reality of his abilities, and quickly teaches him to conceal his talents from all but herself, until she opens the ‘circle of trust’ up to include her girlfriend Liz, a woman of far greater moral weakness and desperation. Liz’s takes the King character role of the severely flawed person who makes the protagonist’s bad situation go too far, far worse. She also takes what works well as a horror novel and puts a justice/crime spin to it through a plot that reads familiar in the noir pages of Hard Case Crime. Some readers may feel that this horror/crime hybrid has a plot that really unfurls too late, at ~ three quarters of the way in. I didn’t mind one bit, because leading up to all of that hybrid action were pages and pages of great characterization.

It’s no secret that King writes children characters really well, particularly capturing that adolescent age of males going into their teens. With the voice of Jamie, King sticks with what works well. I did not want to put the novel down at any moment, I just wanted to keep learning about what Jamie would do with his ability – or how he would be used; what he would discover about himself; how his small family of he and his mother would make it out of the challenges that faced them. Just as King sticks in his wheelhouse with Jamie, he likewise stays with the familiar with the occupation of Jamie’s literary agent/editor mother. Being a lover of books and the publishing industry myself, I enjoyed this aspect and its nice references, particularly a sample NYT Dwight Garner review that made me emit a loud ‘hah!”

Other secondary characters King pens equally strongly. The elderly professor neighbor was another favorite of mine, most particularly for the role the amiable man plays in preparing Jamie for facing a particularly malevolent spirit of a serial bomber/killer. It may not have been King’s intention, but the scenes of this subject and interactions between the professor and the young boy reminded me of the beloved gothic plots and characters of John Bellairs: Professor Childermass and Johnny Dixon. In many regards the novel ended up taking on the flavor of a Bellairs YA novel – just with more foul language and drugs involved. Going along with these associations, the novel also references/plays with the classic ghost story “Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by M.R. James. James was a major influence on Bellairs, so even if King is just directly alluding to James with Later, he equally indirectly alludes to Bellairs.

If you have liked things by King, and like classic ghost stories, this should be quick and enjoyable read. Likewise, if you’re just a fan of the general Hard Case Crime label noir, there is enough intersection with the classic motifs of that genre (crooked cops, drug running, monstrous crime bosses with perverse sexual proclivities, etc) to make it familiar and sate the appetite.

From page one Jamie – and I guess King – makes note of the frequent use of the title word ‘later’. I kind of hope that we will see more of Jamie later in future books. The character and tone just work too well to be finished with. Later on one day I may whistle for that, and see what comes.