NIGHTMARE MAGAZINE #100 (January 2021) Edited by John Joseph Adams


For its 100th issue, this Nightmare includes a large selection of stories beyond the four that normally an issue would contain. Some of the stories are available to read for free on the website, but it’s a particular bargain this month to purchase for the complete contents. I’ve subscribed since (near) the start of the magazine’s run, and as a fan of dark fantasy, I haven’t regretted it. The close of this issue has given me one of those moments where I wish the horror field could collectively decide to take a breather from mining the Lovecraft though.

“How to Break into a Hotel Room” by Stephen Graham Jones — A scam artist goes to steal some things from a hotel room to sell off to his friend and longtime partner. Though the job seems to proceed well, he enters into a bare hotel room to face ghosts from a tragic episode of their past crimes. What sets this story above the norm is the voice that Jones gives to Javi the scam artist. Solid display of horror short fiction here, though I’m uncertain why the past choses this particular moment to catch up on Javier.

“Rotten Little Town: An Oral History” by Adam-Troy Castro — Written as a series of interviews with the (surviving) creator/writer and cast of a successful cult TV show. It chronologically proceeds though the seasons of the show’s run, providing details of the on-screen and behind-the-scene elements of cast relationships and bringing the series to life. Between the lines, the reader realizes that there is something dark and sinister influencing things. I enjoyed the format of this story and the idea of the ‘dirty secrets’ of production that can occur only to be hushed up, but taking it in a really malevolent and controlling direction.

“I Let You Out” by Desirina Boskovich  — A woman is haunted through life by a monster that emerges from closets. An over-zealous religious family makes the terror worse, and casts judgement and doubt upon the victim. She recalls the monster’s first visit, and forces herself to look upon its face. The metaphoric themes of this are familiar in dark short fiction: feminism, overcoming trauma. Boskovich approaches them with some fine, tender writing that doesn’t go down the ‘revenge’ route that other stories in this vein often turn.

“Last Stop on Route Nine” by Tananarive Due — Driving in Florida from her grandmother’s funeral to a luncheon Charlotte and her younger cousin Kai get lost in the fog on Route 9. Stopping for directions at a house by an old boarded-up gas station, they are hexed by a crazed old racist woman and flee back into the fog before finding aid. The story involves a journey into another time in a way. The realization of the characters that they don’t want to go back also serves as a reminder that the racist, dark corners remain.

“Darkness, Metastatic” by Sam J. Miller — I read this right before going to sleep, and a story has not creeped me out as much as this one did in a long time. As usual, Miller writes exceptionally well, with characters and situations that can tug on emotions. In this a man named Aaron becomes concerned when his ex, and investigative documentary partner, begins leaving lots of dark messages on another ex’s phone. Digging deeper and trying to connect back with his ex, named Caleb, he learns more of Caleb’s investigation into seemingly unconnected murders, and discovers a creepy viral app called Met_A_Static that may have changed Caleb, and now has targeted Aaron. I haven’t found much interpretation to make of this story yet after one read, but it certainly works on the base horror level.

“Wolfsbane” by Maria Dahvana Headley — A feminist retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood story with witchcraft, mother, daughter, sister, grandmother, and wolves. Not the style of story I go for, but the themes of it are great and Headley’s writing, as usual, is exquisite.

“Thin Cold Hands” by Gemma Files — First published in LampLight in 2018, this story has popped up since reprinted The Dark Magazine and in one of Datlow’s Best Horror of the Year collections. This is a creepy changeling story about mothers, daughters, and home. Though others by Files have resonated more with me, this is a solid horror story that is worth a reread.

“The Things Eric Eats Before He Eats Himself” by Carmen Maria Machado — A short story whose title sums up the plot entirely. The list of foodstuffs is fascinating varied to read, written in a careful flow of musical words.

“Up From Slavery” by Victor Lavalle — This reprint of a short novella that originally appeared in Weird Tales starts with a scene of a train crash, a scene that shows how well Lavalle can write. Simon Dust grew up as a black boy in the foster care system, and never knew who his parents were. One day, while copy-editing a new edition of Booker T. Washington’s memoir (which gives this story its title) Dust receives a letter with his father’s name in it, informing him that his father has died and left his home in Syracuse to Dust. There, Dust further discovers this man who has claimed to be his father was a white man, and that his body was discovered under creepy circumstances. This sets up the Lovecraftian horror that follows, a story of gods and slaves that takes creatures from the iconic and inexplicably influential writer’s stories and reworks them into powerful themes of racism and identity. Those who are familiar with Lovecraft will probably get more from this story. I had to look up the references, and as much as I enjoyed the emotional and thematic core of the story, I just don’t get the fascination with Lovecraft tropes.

“Jaws of Saturn” by Laird Barron — Another Lovecraftian reprint taken from Barron’s collection The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and Other Stories. A woman tells her hired gun boyfriend about the strange dreams that have been plaguing her, and the hypnotist she is seeing for treatment in quitting smoking. After a marathon sexual encounter together and further talk of her odd dreams, the guy decides to look into this hypnotist further. The weird horror that he discovers is beyond anything he could’ve expected. Barron writes amazingly, but here there is nothing underneath the cosmic horror angle for me to really grab onto and appreciate, and this genre of horror alone doesn’t suffice.

With “The H Word” horror column by Orrin Gray, author spotlights, a book review from Terence Taylor, and a roundtable interview with outgoing editor John Joseph Adams and incoming editor Wendy N. Wagner.


ANALOG SCIENCE FICTION & FACT Vol. CXXXI #s 1 and 2 (January/February 2021) Edited by Trevor Quachri


The first issue of the year features a number of strong stories, but also some (particularly among the shortest) that seem less complete or impactful. Though still dominated by ‘hard science fiction’ that favors technology and speculative details, a surprising number of the stories here put the speculative element to the back to focus on character relationships or other non-technical themes. I’m fine with that trend, and certainly with the balance that it brings to this issue.

“Mixed Marriage” by Dan Helms — Soon Jae-won, the only son in a Korean family, awakens within their small allotment of living space to an important day ahead when he will meet his future wife. The story is set in a future where human population levels have resulted in adoption of ‘time share’, where families are designated just one day a week for going about activity, while sleeping the other six in cramped, shared quarters. Jae-won is a Friday, but the woman he is to marry is a Sunday, and generations kept separate has given rise to class and cultural differences that his family worries might interfere with a successful marriage. Interesting premise and story here from a clash of a conservative, traditional mindset with one more relaxed and open. I liked the ending and its take on how people can get comfortable in anything, and fear the work or discomfort that might arise from changing even something repressive. I don’t know why Helms chose Korea as the setting, and am not familiar enough with Korean culture enough to know the accuracy in portrayal here. Looking at other’s reviews of the story I’m concerned that so many of those seem to conflate Asian nations and cultures.

“A Shot in the Dark” by Deborah L. Davitt — On Uranus’ moon Titania, Dominic Vadas works for a UN space agency alone at the farthest station from Earth, happy to live a hermit away from human contact, and keeping interactions with his AI to a minimum. A new message from Earth with orders for Vadas to leave the autonomous robots going there and pack his bag to intercept and check out an extrasolar object that has arrived in our system. Along with the increased news from Earth arrives a letter from a daughter Vadas hadn’t realized he had. Fantastic story with natural dialogue, lots of technical details, and a strong human element with character development to boot.

“The Liberator” by Nick Wolven — A man infiltrates a criminal group that supports human reproduction without genetic modifications. Though the story is written well and engagingly as a thriller, the central theme here seems well-trodden and I didn’t feel the story added much perspective on what human modification should or should not entail, or the nature of how ‘defective’ could be defined.

“The Nocturnal Preoccupations of Moths” by J. Northcutt, Jr. — One of two stories in a row in the issue featuring a Martian colony. Here, the setting centers on botanists who are working hard to maintain seed banks amid the failing colony mission. The story is followed by a note of its historical influence from actions of botanists during the siege (of Leningrad if my memory serves) during WWII. The scientists actions and discussions are interspersed with passages on the behaviors of moth in the habitat. For me it was a beautiful, melancholy story of nature and human behavior during times of short supply.

“Belle Lettres Ad Astra” by Norman Spinrad — Written for a special volume themed around the state of reading in the future, this tale involves “Elon Tesla”, interstellar expansion of humanity through hibernation, and the possible discovery of a Dyson Sphere. I’m not a fan of Spinrad’s columns usually, and this story felt just as ambling and uninteresting.

“By the Will of the Gods” by Charles Q. Choi — A young man who has been raised an orphan in a temple found on a space route looks into the death of the temple’s caretaker, the one man there who showed love for the boy and helped mentor him. A nice mixture of SF, mystery, and class commentary.

“My Hypothetical Friend” by Harry Turtledove — Dave Markarian has built Interstellar Master Traders by profiting from his carefully established business relationship with the enigmatic Brot, a slug-like alien race that arrives on Earth with advanced technology well beyond humanities capabilities or even comprehension. He learns that the Brot representative that he has worked with for decades – perhaps even developed a friendship with – is leaving. Markarian’s symbolic gift for the departing Brot shows a deeper perception of the human-Brot relatioship than he may realize. Alien contact (arrival on Earth) stories stereotypically go the way of conqueror or altruistic saviors, but as he excels at, Turtledove looks to history to speculate more realistic and imaginable interactions (business and personal) between trading partners with such differences in development between them.

“Photometric Evidence of the Gravitational Lensing of SAO23820 By a Nonluminous Low-Mass Stellar Object” by Jay Werkheiser — A physicist relates being ostracized into an academic pariah after relentlessly pursuing publication of data he feels indicates the presence of a black dwarf star. Others refuse to accept this as it runs counter to the Standard Theory. Maybe physics is more black/white than bio, but I would think a bit of data might be consistent or inconsistent with something without leading a grand theory being so threatened. Other explanations seem to always exist. And this, I guess, takes place in the days before preprint servers? Story does say something about dogma in science that is worth saying, I just am not sure it did so in the best way.

“Conference of the Birds” by Benjamin C. Kinney — Only after reading the author biography after this story, did it completely click with me. This is a story that merges artificial intelligence concepts with neurobiological intelligence concepts, a tale of drones acting out the will of a central hub, of individual actions within a larger societal organism. This one is dense, with a unique voice for its major character. For my tastes in fiction I’d say I like the concept more than the execution. But I get why some readers would find this a fascinating and rewarding read. Scientists or laypersons with an interest in neurobiology or AI should definitely give this a look.

“Interstellar Pantomime” by Martin Dimkovski — A probe from Earth responds to an object trailing it as programmed, but unbeknownst to the probe’s designers, this alien object can use its observations of the probe to extrapolate its origin. A simple, fair speculative idea. But, I’m not a fan of this kind of minimalist story around a hard SF concept, even if short.

“Matter and Time Conspire” by Sandy Parsons — Flash fiction like the previous story, this one dealing with multiple ‘me’ characters due to the messing with time. An enjoyable enough read, but nothing special or particularly new to it.

“The Tale of Anise and Basil” by Daniel James Peterson — This brief story features a human prisoner forced to be royal storyteller in an alien court. The alien ruler demands a story that conforms to rules of leaving no details unexplained or left to the imagination or face death. Considering the demand and its traps, the human storyteller finds a way to oblige. A commentary on unreasonable reader/reviewer demands for authors? Reads like a fable, but with the technical/philosophic arguments that perhaps make it fitting for Analog.

“The Practitioner” by Em Liu — Medical students in 2093 observe events through time from past eras as part of their Medical Ethics course. One student has difficulties coming to terms with what she observes in the mid-1960s at an underground (illegal) abortion clinic. The politics of the story stay relatively muted despite the subject matter by focusing mainly on the student’s emotions and her rationale for being involved in medicine. I liked it, and the story focuses less on the technology than I would have expected from the Analog venue, but that’s fine with me.

“What Were You Thinking?” by Jerry Oltion — What is consciousness? What is intelligent behavior compared to simple programmed responses. A boy observing his girlfriend’s cat vomiting up hairballs designs an animal behavior experiment to address this question. I adored this story, and will probably feature it in my Biology in Fiction course where the debate over consciousness comes up quite a bit.

“Changing Eyes” by Douglas P. Marx — The second story featuring Martian colonies, here with people descended from Sherpas, where a man who helped terraform the planet returns to help solve a technical problem/disaster, having left some time ago after his wife and daughter perished. The science behind the story (involving energy generation) was inconsequential to me, though may interest some. But, I did enjoy the theme of returning to a belovedly important place that also holds painful memories.

“A Working Dog” by anne m. gibson — The second story in the issue featuring animal behavior and this one is humorous, clever, and charming. A woman who has invented lawncare robots made to appear like rabbits becomes concerned when she realizes they provoke canine hunting instincts, so she searches for a solution. Aside from the topic the story perfectly illustrates scientific problem-solving and carefully considering assumptions of what the problem is.

“So You Want to Be a Guardian Angel” by Michael Meyerhofer — Candidates looking to work in the protection of Earth from asteroids receive a talk about what the job would entail, especially the loneliness. Very short story – not quite flash – but nothing particularly special about it.

“Choose One” by Marie DesJardin — This strange piece of flash fiction features a dancer who has been selected by aliens as a potential ‘best of’ humanity (from all walks of life). Housed separately but with information on who remains, she watches as one-by-one other candidates ‘disappear’. Unclear what happens to those who fail to measure up, or what the aliens are actually looking for. Existential angst is what this story seemed to be for me.

“We Remembered Better” by Evan Dicken — Interesting story where two siblings are left one single memory in their estranged, abusive mother’s will. One sibling is trans, and this decision seems to have led to much of the rift between mother and children. The story raises issues of what one might choose to do with the opportunities to view memories from the point of view of others, including those who you might vehemently disagree. It also touches upon sibling support.

“The Last Compact” by Brian Rappatta — Another set on Mars. A young man and his mothers are moving, ending an AI-related museum project he was helping work on, with an AI saint now going into archive that the man wishes he could save and take with. This felt like a fragment of a story, and I cannot find it fulfilling anything significant with what it does contain.

“Riddlepigs and the Cryla” by Raymund Eich — A vet who is really excited to get to treat a dinosaur is sad to discover her patient is actually a pig who has been injured by the escaped dino from the nearby preserve on this extraterrestrial planet setting. Some interesting ideas here on the ‘value’ of organisms common versus exotic, some speculation on transplant organ production, but lacked any depth beyond.

“The Last Science Fiction Story” by Adam-Troy Castro — Flash fiction almost akin to a prose poem (although I guess that is oxymoronic?) The title is ironic, for there can never be a last one, as the story explains.

With “Constructing a Habitable Planet” science fact by Julie Novakova and poetry by Jennifer Crow (Hidden Things) and Bruce McAllister (If).


LIGHTSPEED MAGAZINE #128 (January 2021) Edited by John Joseph Adams


Strong issue with a nice variety of stories. Themes common to several of the stories seemed to be the relationship(s) between a man and woman and the concept of independence. In general I enjoyed the reprints over the newer selections, however.

“The Incorruptible World” by Anjali Sachdeva — A wealthy couple have an expensive vacation home built. Only this vacation home is a (very) small planet with geological features and a small empty city tailored to their aesthetics. Well, the husband’s. The woman lets him make the decisions, including the requirement that the planet be utterly sterile. No microbes for the germaphobe. However, the transport scheduled to pick them up at the end of their holiday doesn’t arrive, leaving them stranded. I enjoyed the changes in the couple as they are forced to spend time alone away from civilization, and apparently the distractions that had been previously making the guy an ass. I just couldn’t get past the absurd set-up of this long story. I imagine the physics of such a small planet is not realistic, but I know the biology isn’t. An ecosystem existing without microbes has no feasibility. Even with nanotech as the story uses to try and make it possible. Even accepting one could, those nanobots would effectively be equivalent to microbes, and hence still have all the interactions the man fears, so it would be no different.

“The Hard Spot in the Glacier” by An Owomoyela — Originally published in the collection Mechanical Animals. While mounting a rescue mission on the human-colonized Saturnian moon Enceladus, a woman and her AI-endowed vehicle/tool ‘centipede’ become threatened by an avalanche borne of active glaciology. Interacting with the centipede, she weighs the benefits/risks of continuing the mission to save her (possibly alive/possibly dead) colleague versus the odds of still saving herself and the base camp’s equipment. Really enjoyed the quandary here and the writing.

“The Memory Plague” by D. Thomas Minton — Wonderfully weird SF written from the point of view of a very alien biology ‘born’ with awakening collective memory so that an individual is never really lost. Spreading through space, feeding on other sentient species considered beneath them, they have come and fed on Earth. A ‘newborn’ remaining on Earth discovers the consequences of this biology and its species history. Great concept and great execution.

“On the Fringes of the Fractal” by Greg van Eekhout — “Be cool, or be cast out!” “Conform, or be cast out!” I could just hear “Subdivisions” by Rush going through my mind while reading this story, originally published in a collection of tales inspired by the Canadian progressive rock band, particularly drummer Neil Peart who wrote their lyrics. Like Peart’s writing, a story of individuality and discovery asserting itself amid stifling conformity. It also reminded me of the “Nosedive” episode of Black Mirror. Here though, the journey of a boy to help his friend whose family has lost all ‘stat’ follows a more light-hearted and joyful route, with a lovable Dalmatian named Miss Spotty Pants.

“The Orange Tree” by Maria Dahvana Headley — Originally published in the collection The Weight of Words, this fantasy is based on two historical poets and a lesser-known instance of the Jewish golem tradition where the creation is female. An Andalusian poet hires a carpenter to make a very special ‘cabinet’ from an orange tree. Given life, but not speech, the resulting golem is forced into domestic and conjugal servitude. The feminist theme focuses also on human loneliness in general, and despite the melancholy nature of the tale, it ends with a joyful beauty. The language of the beautiful writing by Headly shines throughout.

“Answering the Questions You Might Have About the Kharbat” by Adam-Troy Castro — You don’t have any questions about the Kharbat, so you don’t read this, even if it is by Castro, whose work you mostly do enjoy very much.

“The Mushroom Queen” by Liz Ziemska — A reprint originally published in the (dearly missed) Tin House literary magazine, this fantasy involves a swap between a wife and fungus that takes her form. The story features a fair amount of science in it too – though fungus is NOT the most prevalent form of life as claimed. (Maybe this is just the Mushroom Queen’s propaganda bias?) Really it seems to be about independence, growing free, and having the chance to change up one’s life. Written from the point of view of the original woman turned fungus, the fungus turned woman, and also two of the family dogs, there is a nice touch of humor in the story too.

“Frost’s Boy” by P H Lee — A baby left in the woods to die by its father is spared due to his exceptional beauty, so that not even the winter frost is willing to take his life. Instead, the frost adopts him, turning his heart to ice. Later, as a young man, the child of frost uses the attraction good looks and to prey upon women, killing them with an icy kiss. No woman has the power to resist. It takes a “good girl, raised honest and pure”, her loving father, and his wife ,who is “cleverer [than her husband] by three times or more”, to outwit and overcome Frost’s Boy’s curse. This fairy tale reads very traditional, at first glance, but the words from the narrator at the start and end make you give it a second look.

The issue also features an excerpt from THE UNFINISHED LAND by Greg Bear (John Joseph Adams Books), Book Reviews, and Author Spotlights. It can be found and read online for free, but I’d encourage all fans to subscribe and support if able.


THE MONSTROUS, Edited by Ellen Datlow

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The Monstrous
Edited by Ellen Datlow
Tachyon Publications – October 2015
ASIN B010MCWEI6 – 384 Pages – eBook
Source: NetGalley


Contents:
“A Natural History of Autumn” by Jeffrey Ford
“Ashputtle” by Peter Straub
“Giants in the Earth” by Dale Bailey
“The Beginning of the Year without Summer” by Caitlín R. Kiernan
“A Wish from a Bone” by Gemma Files
“The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” by Livia Llewellyn
“The Totals” by Adam-Troy Castro
“The Chill Clutch of the Unseen” by Kim Newman
“Down Among the Dead Men” by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois
“Catching Flies” by Carole Johnstone
“Our Turn Too Will One Day Come” by Brian Hodge
“Grindstone” by Stephen Graham Jones
“Doll Hands” by Adam L.G. Nevill
“How I Met the Ghoul” by Sofia Samatar
“Jenny Come to Play” by Terry Dowling
“Miss Ill-Kept Runt” by Glen Hirshberg
“Chasing Sunset” by A.C. Wise
“The Monster Makers” by Steve Rasnic Tem
“Piano Man” by Christopher Fowler
“Corpsemouth” by John Langan

For anyone familiar with editor Datlow the short review for her recent horror anthology The Monstrous would be that it is everything you’ve come to expect from her superb taste and expert experience. If you’ve liked previous anthologies from her, you’ll love this. If you’re a decided non-fan, I wouldn’t expect this anthology to change your mind, tastes in horror just don’t match.
 –
For anyone wanting to give modern horror a try who hasn’t read a Datlow anthology, this is a fine place to start, if not her previous curated volumes. Awhile back I reviewed another Datlow anthology, Fearful Symmetries. Several of the authors featured in that collection reappear here offering new works, and a small number of stories are actually duplicated. In the case of Gemma File’s “A Wish from a Bone” I particularly didn’t mind the rerun. Her story, featuring a TV documentary crew entering an ancient Middle Eastern tomb, is just as entertaining the second time though. A few of the authors I had hoped would also pop up in this anthology were absent, such as Helen Marshall, but this at least gave me the chance for some new discoveries.
The selections in The Monstrous run the gamut of the horror genre, from the subtle to the creepy, the graphic, and the weird. The anthology’s theme also fits a broad interpretation of ‘monstrous’. The monsters are human and beastly, earthly and supernatural, literal and figurative. In many cases the monstrous is unexpected, as are the directions and tones the stories may take. “The Last, Clean, Bright Summer” by Livia Llewellyn is perhaps the best example of the latter. The title of this story and its start suggest family-friendly positivity, pleasant days and warmth. But Llewellyn quickly turns behind the façade of tradition and happiness toward the darkness at the heart of a family gathering. This story is Lovecraftian in inspiration, but not so heavily as to ruin my appreciation of its  well-played contrasts.
 –
Peter Straub, a name that should be recognized by anyone familiar with horror, includes “Ashputtle” here, a creepy and subtle story about a kindergarten teacher who appears increasingly a bit ‘off’. Other authors in the collection should be known from short fiction markets, such as Dale Bailey (“Giants in the Earth”) whose work is often in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, or Sofia Samatar (“How I Met the Ghoul”) whose work has appeared throughout the major ezines, such as Lightspeed, Clarkesworld, and Uncanny magazines. Bailey’s story of coal miners encountering something abnormal does a great job handling settling and the inherent uneasiness of dangerous professions. Samatar, a Somali American, offers an uncommon (in the West) version of the ghoul, which in  Middle Eastern myth is something more like a desert-based mermaid, a beautiful spirit luring men to their demise.
There were only a couple of stories that I didn’t particularly enjoy in this collection, and most fall into a range I would call ‘very good’. A couple really grabbed me though. “Down Among the Dead Men” is a collaboration between a name unknown to me (Jack Dann) and a well-known science fiction editor (Gardner Dozois). Featuring a vampire in a concentration camp this is the kind of story that obviously has huge symbolic and emotional weight. The combination would be very easy to botch up, but Dann and Dozois pull it off amazingly, creating riveting drama that combines the monstrous and the human. Some may think that the Holocaust has enough horror in it without needing a supernatural addition. Yet, this element of a fantastic monster alongside human atrocity allows development and clarity of profound themes.
The collection ends with “Corpsemouth” by John Langan, a stellar example of an ‘epic’ short story. Including emotional complexity with strong characters and plot this story merges the modern with the ancient. In part its style reminds me of classic gothic horror tales of Britain, but with modern language and present-day context. This marks one of multiple stories in this collection that feature horrors that reveal themselves in relation to family. Perhaps this frequency is because of their power, monstrous realities we are innocently born into and cannot easily escape. Ones we have a responsibility of blood to face and overcome. “Corpsemouth” is a top take on this theme, bringing The Monstrous to a satisfying conclusion that makes me greedily await Datlow’s next project.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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

Her Husband’s Hands and Other Stories,
by Adam-Troy Castro
Publisher: Prime Books
ASIN: B00IC3QG1E
336 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

An Adam-Troy Castro story was the cover feature for the first short story genre magazine issue I discovered, relatively late when entering grad school. I continue to wish his name would pop in issues more frequently. This collection is perfect for someone like me who is unfamiliar with a large amount of his previously published work.

The stories in this collection are united in being exceptional. They also share a common grim thread of disturbing themes or tones, at times moving into outright horror. This isn’t all Castro writes. In fact, he is rather adept at switching forms and styles. The stories here, however, illustrate his predilection and talent for darkness. Each showcases his ability to take core aspects of human relationships or conditions and taking them to extremes, to regions where the recognizable beauty of family, love, reproduction, etc begin to become warped into forms only partially recognizable, distorted and often very frightening.

In “Arvies” a world is postulated and explored where a devotion and respect for unborn life is taken to its extreme, at the expense and exploitation of the born, in the title story, with shades of ’50s B-movies, a grieving widow is reunited with her deceased soldier husband’s conscious, in the only part of his body left: an extreme of devotion and connection to the physical for ties to the emotional. “Shallow End of the Pool” takes sibling rivalry to extremes, and the closing “The Boy and the Box” switches up distortions from the human to the divine, taking a theology (in this case a rather poor theology) to absurd maximum.

I adored most of the other stories and appreciated the afterward by Castro regarding his writing and some of the inspirations and reactions to his work. (I still don’t get the significance of the title ‘Arvies’ though – ovaries??). “Our Future” stands out as the most unusual work here, more traditional and less disturbing, making it easy to see how it could form a part of a larger series of stories as it is. Though it doesn’t quite fit the collection perfectly it is a superb story with interesting ideas about ‘otherness’. The award-winning “Of a Sweet Slow Dance in the Wake of Temporary Dogs” was actually my least favorite story in that it just didn’t connect at all, meaning I may just need to reread it. The fragmentary and distant nature of its narrative voice was just too much the moment I read it I think.

The most profound and staggering story here is “Cherub”, a wonderfully conceived fable-esque fantasy where judging people’s moral standing from outward appearances is rendered fully manifest, but with the same basic problem. A gut-wrenchingly beautiful tale, said without hyperbole. This story conveys in purest terms Castro’s ability to look upon the basics of humanity, even in its darkness, and construct a fantastic story of the concept’s extremes without rendering anything clichéd, absurdly silly,or insincere. Instead, his stories stay brutally honest, despite extremes woven around speculative plots, transcending into a basic communication with the reader that more often than not connects with a wisp of beauty shining from within the outer layers of disturbing darkness.

Any SF/Fantasy reader should give this a read, as well as anyone liking literary fiction on a darker edge. This is one collection I am picking up in physical form ASAP.

Five Stars out of Five