Humble Bundle Deal from Tachyon Publications for eBook Readers!

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HUMBLE BOOK BUNDLE: SUPERMASSIVE SCI-FI, FANTASY, & HORROR BY TACHYON

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Online Book Launch: THE SECOND BELL by Gabriela Houston

Super Relaxed Fantasy Club and

Angry Robot Books Present:

An Evening with Gabriela Houston!

“Next Tuesday Mar 9th we release The Second Bell, the much-anticipated fantasy debut from Gabriela Houston, and we’re delighted to be partnering with London’s beloved Super Relaxed Fantasy Club for a FREE online launch event!

From 7pm GMT we’ll be livestreaming on Facebook and YouTube, as Gabriela joins us for a reading from The Second Bell, a chat with host Magnus Anderson about the book and her writing career, and an audience Q&A!”

SYNOPSIS

In a world which believes her to be a monster, a young striga fights to harness the power of her second heart, while her mother sacrifices everything to stop her…

In an isolated mountain community, sometimes a child is born with two hearts. This child is called a striga and is considered a demon who must be abandoned on the edge of the forest. The child’s mother must then decide to leave with her infant, or stay and try to forget.

Nineteen year-old striga, Salka, and her mother, Miriat, made the choice to leave and live a life of deprivation and squalor in an isolated village. The striga tribe share the human belief that to follow the impulses of their other hearts is dangerous, inviting unspoken horrors and bringing ruin onto them all.

Salka, a headstrong and independent young woman, finds herself in a life threatening situation that forces her to explore the depths of her true nature and test the bonds between mother and child…”

This dark fantasy is one that I’m not anticipating. View more information on this event invitation from Angry Robot Books.

The Second Bell by Gabriela Houston • Releases 9th March 2021 • PRE-ORDER

UNCANNY MAGAZINE #38 (January/February 2021) Edited by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas


Since its inception I’ve been one of the Space Unicorns supporting Uncanny Magazine. Yet, among all the genre outlets, it is probably the one that I’m most divided on among typical story content. The type of story they feature sometimes works fantastically for me, but then other times falls flat; this is even with authors who are typical favorites. I haven’t been able to put my finger on it to explain the reasons behind those personal tastes, but just accept that Uncanny will feature an even split for me.

“Tyrannosaurus Hex” by Sam J. Miller — One of my two favorite stories in the issue. For me, Miller can take a story concept that I’m not all terribly excited about and still turn it into something engaging and interesting; this is a case in point. At a dinner, a young girl joins an even younger boy in virtual reality entertainment through their implants, while the adults obliviously chat. The girl quickly realizes something is not quite right, and very dangerous, with the program the boy is running. Namely the malware that has infected it. An interesting take on generational tech divides, shared digital experiences, and lazy parenting.

“A House Full of Voices Is Never Empty” by Miyuki Jane Pinckard — You stopped reading this early in.

“Pathfinding!” by Nicole Kornher-Stace — A second story on children in simulations, with a director and individuals named with numbers, à la Stranger Things. Written in third-person present across 31 numbered sections, it felt long to me. I had no serious problems with it, but didn’t take to its themes or style particularly either.

“In That Place She Grows a Garden” by Del Sandeen — A reprint from a story I first read in Fiyah Magazine, from an issue themed around ‘hair’. A young African American girl is disciplined at school for failing to conform to discriminatory codes that ban traditional Black hairstyles. Despite their attempts to control her body, her head has other plans for what it will grow. Really adore this one, even a second time.

“Beyond the Doll Forest” by Marissa Lingen — My other favorite new story in the issue, again by an author I often enjoy. A nanny ponders her young charge who fears curses, the miniature forest that the girl has built in her playroom that seems to show small changes and fleeting glimpses of creatures, and the absent siblings the girl speaks of. A creepy fantasy of magic, illness symbolized, and the strength/powers of childhood imagination.

“Femme and Sundance” by Christopher Caldwell — Two men start a passionate relationship and plan a bank heist, utilizing charmed masks provided by a curandera one of them knows. Then starts a wild ride on the run with the money, but the magic of the masks still vibrating, and others in pursuit. A fun urban fantasy adventure.

“Distribution” by Paul Cornell — This one certainly fits within the ‘uncanny’ moniker. It’s filled with deep themes of human nature, memory, and social obligations, and it’s set within a vaguely post-disaster setting where fragments of rebuilding occur that hearken to the past, but amid continued near-future technology from our present. Mostly consisting as an interview conversation between two characters, I found it hard to get into and appreciate despite themes that usually resonate.

The issue also features editorials from the editors and “Imagining Futures: Where Our Works Go from Here” by Elsa Sjunneson; poems “Medusa Gets a Haircut” by Theodora Goss, “Kalevala, an untelling” by Lizy Simonen, “bargain | bin” by Ewen Ma, “What The Time Travellers Stole” by L.X. Beckett, and “Fish Out of Water” by Neil Gaiman; essays “Weird Plagues: How Fear of Disease Mutated into a Subgenre” by John Wiswell, “Milk Teeth” by Octavia Cade, “Hayao Miyazaki’s Lost Magic of Parenthood” by Aidan Moher, and “Trash Fantasias, or Why Mass Effect 3‘s Ending Was Bad Actually” by Katherine Cross; interviews of Miyuki Jane Pinckard and Paul Cornell by Caroline M. Yoachim; and thank you messages to Patreon supporters and Kickstarter backers.


THE DARK MAGAZINE #68 (January 2021) Edited by Sean Wallace


Three of the four stories in this issue I adored, and the other might be appreciated by those who aren’t put off by its voice. The Dark Magazine continues to excel in presenting horror/dark fantasy that span a large variety of the genres, with no two stories alike here.

“The Van Etten House” by Carrie Laben — Two friends begin a partnership as online collectible dealers in their college town after graduation. Within the packed house of deceased hoarder, they discover a room of custom-made dolls that appear modeled after children contacted though Christian magazine pen-pal want ads. And it gets ore unsettling. The most conventional horror story in the issue, in this case also one of my favorites. Creepy dolls will always be something that gets me, and the idea gets a fresh look here both in terms of the doll’s creator and their effects. Alongside this, the strength of the bond between the partners becomes tested. This could fit right in adapted into a horror anthology TV series, and I loved its atmosphere of familiar horror territory in a new way.

“Love for Ashes” by Frances Ogamba — You did not read this story because I started talking to you in it.

“There, in the Woods” by Clara Madrigano — A woman living in her childhood home considers the recent disappearance of a boy from the neighborhood in the nearby woods, a sinister place where her husband also recently disappeared, and others in her past. Understandably questioned by police, she find herself unable to leave the house, yet still drawn by the lure of the woods and the truth she knows deep down. The story can be read symbolically, or literally as horror/fantasy, and it could likely evoke different interpretations according to the reader and details held onto. It’s unsettling and mysterious, and I’ll look forward now to more from the author written in English as this, or translated from Portuguese.

“Each Night an Adaptation” by Osahon Ize-Iyamu — A girl sleeps in her dead father’s house to help him enter the afterlife, and to help her mother who cannot handle keeping the tradition herself. And how this shapes her future. A touching short piece on how people handle grief, deal with the heaviness of expectations, and confront horror. Though dark, it is pervaded with an atmosphere of perseverance and strength in its protagonist, the aptly named Destiny.

The issue also features cover art by Vincent Chong.


THE MONSTER OF ELENDHAVEN by Jennifer Giesbrecht

The Monster of Elendhaven
By Jennifer Giesbrecht
Tor.com Publishing — September 2019
ISBN: 9781250225689
— Paperback — 160 pp.


A decaying, disease-infested city in the frigid North, Eldenhaven is populated by many sorts of unsavory characters, profiting on the misery of others as the city apocalyptically slouches on the edge of the sea into grimy ruin. But stalking among them is a monster, a man – a creature. Born of Eldenhaven: its magic, its perversity, its cruelty, this monster has given himself the name Johann, and he thrives on the messy violence of taking lives, unstoppable. With hazy to no memories of his existence before he washed up on the docks of the city, Johann’s lust for murder seems beyond his control, or escape, for he does not seem able to die.

One day, Johann observes another monster, Florian Leickenbloom, a young man who can influence the minds of others. A magician. Coming from one of the former leading (founding) houses of Eldenhaven, Florian couldn’t look any different from the rough lower-class edges of Johann. But beneath outward appearances, Johann can see the vile nature, something maybe more darkly powerful than himself, and something also beautiful. Together, Johann and Florian begin to discover one another, forming a twisted relationship that spins with threads of their pasts, and a tragedy surrounding Florian’s deceased twin sister Flora. Meanwhile, a woman named Eleanor has arrived in Eldenhaven, in search of Florian and looking for monsters to slay.

I’ve been watching a bunch of the TV program Oddities recently, and one of the things that I appreciate about the people featured on the show is how they find beauty in the dark and macabre, even in cold, indifferent tragedy or horror. It’s a quality that attracts many to the horror genre as fans, a way of seeing and remembering the human inherent in mortality and even within the monstrous. The Monster of Elendhaven by Jennifer Giesbrecht is a book for that sort of person. Gruelingly dark at times, the novella features a Victorianesque gothic atmosphere brought alive by some of the most luscious prose I’ve seen in the genre. It mixes modern in with the antiquated vibe, making this feel a lot like steampunk, though without the technology aspect.

The blurb by Joe Hill on the cover is no exaggeration. Giesbrecht writes poetically and honestly no matter what the topic of focus: architecture, a blood-splattering murder, a character’s outfit, a rape. The prose isn’t for the squeamish, and those wishing to avoid reading certain dark topics might wish to stay away. It is a story from the point of view of a serial killer, after all. But, nothing of this is gratuitous. And it is not merely just Grim Dark. Beneath the moments of violence (physical or mental) is a study of characters, a study of relationships among people who have been broken, in a city coming apart. Even amongst all of that darkness sits something beautiful, something of love.

As twisted as the relationship is between Florian and Johann, and as awful as they each individually are, together they hold the possibility of redemption for one another. Saying too much about this would spoil the major revelations of The Monster of Elendhaven, but the bubbling eroticism between these two represents a fascinating study on the question of power imbalances in relationships. Who is the exploiter and who is the exploited between the two is not so clear. And, as wrong as so much is about their relationship, it has the power to make some things more right. But will it? And is it ‘okay’ if it does?

Like Oddities, the novella forces its characters (and thus the reader) to look at things that might be uncomfortable and horrendous and consider what can be learned from it, or how something gorgeous might be made from it. That is one of the things that the horror genre does so well. The ending to The Monster of Elendhaven doesn’t seem to neatly wrap things up or give answers to these questions as some readers might crave. There is definitely room here for Giesbrecht to take and resolve things further, and I really hope that she does return to this world and its characters.

I read The Monster of Elendhaven back in October, a perfect fit for the Halloween season. Just getting to a review of it now and thinking about it, I would be just as happy reading it any time of the year. I also read it back-to-back with Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, another dark offering from Tor.com Publishing I’d recommend. I plan to also feature that here soon while also covering its sequel Harrow the Ninth. If you happened to read those novels of The Locked Tomb series already and enjoyed them, I think you’d likewise enjoy Jennifer Giesbrecht’s novella.


THE WORM AND HIS KINGS by Hailey Piper

The Worm and His Kings
By Hailey Piper
Off Limits Press — November 2020
ISBN: 9780578779799
— Paperback — 116 pp.


I’m very happy to see the start of this new publisher devoted to horror, Off Limits Press. I took advantage of a sale they had on two of their first releases, this novella and Crossroads by Laurel Hightower, and the other day I just received a copy of Tim McGregor’s novel Hearts Strange and Dreadful for review. That one is just released today, so I hope to get it read and reviewed up here soon. If Haley Piper’s The Worm and His King is any indication of their quality, I’ll be happy to keep up with all of Off Limits horror releases.

The Worm and His Kings does an awful lot in just a little over one-hundred pages. Cosmic horror used to symbolize one woman’s journey of resilience and strength, its plot is fairly straightforward to encapsulate, but doesn’t do the book’s rich characterization or complex themes justice. But, it is the framework for those things:

Monique and Donna have fallen on hard times. Forced out of their New York City apartment with the rising rents of the early 1990s, they end up in a shelter, and now Monique is on the street without Donna, who has gone missing. Donna is just one of several ‘invisible’ people in the city that have not just been lost, but have been taken. Monique has seen a taloned monster, the Gray Maiden, creeping from the tunnels and taking other homeless through the cracks into the subterranean underside of the city’s belly. Monique sleeps in the tunnel beside a strange spot that all others avoid, a spot that her senses tell her is a bleak nothingness. There, when she next sees the Gray Maiden appear, come for prey, Monique follows it into the lair of a frightening cult, to find and rescue Donna.

During Monique’s journey into the underworld she another woman looking for a professor friend who infiltrated the cult, and together they follow suit, trying to blend into the horror they discover, ignorant of what exactly it all entails. Monique finds the courage to keep going – to never give up – with thoughts of her devotion to Donna, and recollection of horrors she already has faced and survived: a family who has ostracized her, and a criminally incompetent back-alley surgeon who botched her sexual reassignment surgery with intent to merely harvest organs from her for the black market.

Monique’s history, and the nature of the cult, the Gray Maiden, and the fate of Donna are only gradually revealed as Monique’s journey from surface tunnel into the depths of the otherworldly cult occurs. The story shines as a positive example of a transexual’s journey of discovery; acceptance of everything they always have been. Even with the dark tones of horror, and body horror of botched surgery, Piper’s message becomes that a human being – including transexuals – is not just about their physical body, but is something deeper and ingrained. In her past Monique never felt comfortable in her (male) body. Now that aspect of dysmorphia may be gone, but she still feels the scars of the surgery and not feeling fully female now either. Her relationship with, and support from, Donna drives her to overcome these doubts. They fuel her mission to find her strengths, who she really is, to be reunited with the woman who makes her feel whole, healed and just right.

Cosmic horror is not my favorite sub-genre (despite how much of it I seem to have read recently), and some of the hopeless darkness inherent to it I feel battles somewhat against the positive themes of empowerment in the novella. Cosmic horror is about the individual, the human, being powerless, against the cosmic evil (as I understand it at least). This novella subverts that, yet also its ending still provides heavy doses of uncertainty and darkness that one might traditionally expect.

Piper also effectively sets the pace and rhythm of the novella, each chapter like a step, revealing more. Not every moment is taken up by action, but Monique’s sense of purpose provides a momentum that drives things forward all the same. Once she steps onto the path of her journey things proceed in a rush, and details come in a blur. Important observations, or key memories, arrive in a burst, easy to miss if not reading carefully for the nuance. This permits Piper to fit everything into the slim novella length, but also keeps the reader fully engaged. The reader, along with Monique, muddles through the uncertainties to reach the revelations.

The characters in The Worm and His Kings are the destitute and oppressed, those that feel powerless against the world, let alone a cosmic horror and its giant clawed monsters. Even the acolytes of the cult are victimized, misled and turned towards something awful in their despair, succumbing to what they see inevitable. Monique demonstrates this doesn’t have to be the case, that resistance and perseverance alone become form of victory.

Like the best of weird horror, Piper’s novella chills and entertains, but potently reflects the horrific in society that we can resist: economic divisions, bigotry, misogyny, and the temptations to just give up. Off Limits Press is still offering deals on their first releases, and whether you can take advantage of those or not, The Worm and His Kings is a shining gem that the genre fans should appreciate.


CLARKESWORLD MAGAZINE #172 (January 2021) Edited by Neil Clarke


There are some excellent stories in this issue, complex and imaginative, but there are some let-downs compared to the best of what Clarkesworld has offered (for my tastes at least). Unfortunately, there are no translations in this issue, something that this outlet can almost always be relied upon to support. The novella here falls into a category that Clarkesworld novellas often are in (again for me): far too long for e-format and too short for a story I could best get into. And, with one third of the stories written in the second person that you of course will skip, you end up with a mixed bag for January’s issue.

“Intentionalities” by Aimee Ogden — Saddled with crippling debt and few options to dig herself out to secure any kind of stable future, a woman decides to apply for corporate support by offering her womb, carrying and delivering a child that will then be contracted after five years with her to go work for the company’s off-world mines. She comes to regret this decision and begins a campaign to fight a system that allows coercion of this horrible choice and ownership. Well written commentary on existing capitalist conditions that aren’t too far off from this scenario, all but literally.

“Deep Music” by Elly Bangs — Probably my favorite story of the issue for its themes and tones. Quinn takes care of aquids, squid-like water-creatures that have begun to appear on dry land and come into contact with humans. While some consider them as annoying pests that need to be removed or exterminated, Quinn is convinced they have intelligence, so gathers them and cares for them, trying to make sense of their communications. However, the owner of a rival aquid-removal service who treats the aquids with disdain begins to target Quinn (and the aquids) with hateful harassment. Quinn’s actions in response help solidify an understanding with the aquids in her care. Though the bones of the story and its ending will be recognizable to many readers, its lightness and familiarity feels welcome amid the rest of this issue, and the themes work in more modern ways as commentary on ‘troll-like’ relationships of harassment.

“Philia, Eros, Storge, Agápe, Pragma” by R.S.A. Garcia — I’m slowly growing to appreciate the novella-length story more when published on its own. But I still struggle with them in the contexts of short fiction magazines, particularly when having to read it on an e-reader or – even worse – a computer screen. This story is complex, organized in alternating passages between different times in the characters’ history. It serves as a prequel to a previous story by the author in Clarkesworld that featured the couple Dee and Eva. This recounts their meeting, when Dee rescues Eva who has crashed landed on a planet after a conflict that has left her paired AI “Sister” apparently malfunctioning. While dealing with loss of/changes in Sister that she had always been accustomed to, she begins romance with Dee and faces the enemy. I would have much preferred these two stories just as a novel, on their own. Nothing wrong with the writing here, so for readers who do love this novella length, the story will be successful and appreciated.

“The Last Civilian” by R. P. Sand — You did not read this story.

“Aster’s Partialities: Vitri’s Best Store for Sundry Antiques” by Tovah Strong — The most imaginative and magical of the stories here, reading more akin to fantasy than science fiction, it’s also the story that I felt benefitted from rereading. A magician named Syd who works in magical secrets of space and time is executed by the officials of Vitri. From drops of her blood upon the text of speels, her death gives birth to the narrators of the story, a ‘we’ that forms a house, with mirrors within that a form of Syd inhabits. The house consumes a man who dares enter, but then a curious child arrives, carrying with a necklace talisman that belonged to the magician. A fun story to read as I tried to figure out the nature of things as it unfolded. On some level about the persistence of a person’s influence beyond death on a city and its inhabitants, discovery of forbidden things by a new generation, and likely much more. Subsections are titled with a series of four numbers, but I haven’t figured out their relevance. Certainly a story to analyze but also just enjoy.

“Leaving Room for the Moon” by P H Lee — You start this story and all seems fine, only to realize it is yet another story to skip.

The issue also features “Science Fiction and Schmaltz: A Conversation with Connie Willis” and “The Ten-Year Journey: A Conversation with E. Lily Yu”, each by Arley Sorg, a 2020 in Review editorial by Clarke, and cover art by Yuumei.


DEPARTMENT ZERO by Paul Crilley

Department Zero
By Paul Crilley
Pyr Books — January 2017
ISBN: 9781633882010
— Paperback — 320 pp.


For some reason my reading over the last days has featured a good amount of cosmic horror, a sub-genre I don’t dislike, but also don’t gravitate toward. Given this, I thought it might be a good time to feature Paul Crilley’s 2017 novel Department Zero for a review from the backlist. Supernatural horror equal parts cosmic and comic, Department Zero has accurately been compared to the Men in Black series concept, with monsters in place of aliens. But, it also features characterization and motivation in its protagonist that goes beyond what those films attempted, and a multiversed panorama of settings and Lovecraftian creatures.

If you read any of my short fiction reviews, or the one I’ll soon write on Hailey Piper’s The Worm and His Kings, you’ll already know that I haven’t read Lovecraft. And even with the number of cosmic horror stories inspired by his style and creations, I don’t pay attention to, or care, who’s who or what’s what. Department Zero can be enjoyed without knowing anything about Lovecraft’s stories. I imagine it would be even more enriching for fans of the sub-genre who might get references. But, the heart of the story, its humor, and its non-stop moving action persist even if stripped from the cosmic horror particulars.

The protagonist of the novel is Harry Priest, a good-hearted – but generally failing-at-life – guy, whose job is to clean up deaths at crime/accident scenes. Stability at least accompanies this unpleasant occupation, stability that keeps him up with financial responsibilities to his ex-wife and continued visitations with his beloved daughter. No matter what crappy kind of day he has, Harry’s sole priority in life is getting to say goodnight to his daughter with a bedtime story.

On what he expects to be a routine biohazard removal job, Harry discovers something inexplicably bizarre amid the gory scene, and soon finds himself targeted by unfathomable creatures of nightmare. Harry’s actions at the crime scene draw the attention of one Havelock Graves, a self-absorbed agent for the Interstitial Crime Department (ICD), whose team has been demoted to “Department Zero” in punishment for the botched crime scene that Harry has accidentally disturbed. Harry has now been targeted by an evil cult that thinks he is involved in their multidimensional schemes, forcing Harry to join up as part of Graves’ team to reinstate them to ICD’s good gracious, and to thwart a criminal plan that spans the dimensions. The cult seeks the Spear of Destiny, a tool that can be used to free the cosmic entity/god Cthulhu from his dreamlike stasis.

Department Zero thus represents one huge mashup novel: science fiction, fantasy, gory horror, with a bit of mystery/thriller mixed in, all written with a lighthearted tongue-in-cheek humor from Harry’s point of view. No single one of these elements really works to overtake the rest, and Crilley keeps the engaging plot moving swiftly so that on a whole these disparate genre elements just all add up to a simply entertaining read.

The rapid pace of the novel has some downside to it, in that the reader doesn’t get too much of a chance to breathe or appreciate the multiverse as much as might be possible with more extensive scene-setting. On the other hand, like a good action movie, it keeps readers from worrying too much about the sense or silliness of it all, and simply instead just enjoying the ride. The main moments of ‘down-time’ from the novel’s plot propelling forward in action come from the grounded characterization of Harry Priest’s love for his daughter. Amid all the craziness and fantasy, there is something purely human and ‘realistic’ in his motivations and desires.

I suspect that the most prominent factor to Department Zero that will determine whether a reader likes the novel or decides to put it down unfinished will come down to appreciation of the humor. Some may find it too much, but others will find the quirkiness to hit the spot. It’s hard to predict where potential readers may lie, but if this summary and genre mash-up peaks your interest, it’s a wacky entertainment worth trying out. The blog Books, Bones & Buffy: Adventures in Speculative Fiction has an excerpt available for download, which might help potential readers decide if the novel’s tone is the right fit.

While Department Zero was not a book I was particularly looking for, it was one of those random ARC finds that left me pleased and glad that it found me.


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.


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.