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“The Dark Descent” by David G. Hartwell (editor)

Originally published in 1987, David G. Hartwell’s The Dark Descent collects a number of the best short horror stories written to that date. At over a thousand pages, it’s a substantial collection. Hartwell divides the stories into three thematic categories, but there’s another way in which one could divide the book into thirds. Some of the stories in The Dark Descent were written by giants of the field (and many are themselves classics of the genre); others are works by lesser-known horror writers; and still others were penned by writers famous in genres other than horror.

Fans of horror will probably already have read some of the stories in the first group, like Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu.” In other cases, avid horror readers may be delighted to read “new” works by authors they already love. Stephen King, for example, is known primarily for his novels, but The Dark Descent includes two works of his shorter fiction, “The Monkey” and “Crouch End.” One of the most interesting stories in this set is Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner.” James’s The Turn of the Screw is a classic ghost story, despite the uncertainty over whether or not there’s actually a ghost. “The Jolly Corner” also presents a twist on tales of hauntings, with the main character conceiving of the house he grew up in as being haunted by the spirit of the man he would have become if he’d stayed there. When he tries to catch this spirit, the roles reverse, and he begins thinking of himself as the ghost.

Of the stories that fall into the second category, my favorites were Karl Edward Wagner’s “Sticks” and Robert Hitchens’s “How Love Came to Professor Guildea.” “Sticks” is a truly creepy tale of a man who finds sculptures made from tied-together twigs in the woods near his home. Despite its having won a British Fantasy Award, I haven’t seen this story reprinted anywhere else, and Wagner’s work seems not to have been widely reprinted in general. “How Love Came to Professor Guildea” tells of a misanthropic scholar who’s haunted by a presence that holds no ill will toward him whatsoever. On the contrary, it seems to love him. This may not seem like a promising setup for a horror story, but Guildea finds its presence revolting, and Hitchens conveys his feelings of being oppressed and smothered so well that the reader naturally empathizes with them.

Finally, several of the stories presented here are by authors who are famous not for horror, but for science fiction. While Ray Bradbury is primarily known for sci-fi works like The Martian Chronicles, he also wrote a fair number of stories that fall into the realm of horror or dark fantasy. Some of the best are collected in The October Country, including “The Crowd,” which is reprinted here. It takes the already uncomfortable phenomenon of people rubbernecking at car accidents and turns it into something truly sinister. The Dark Descent also features Philip K. Dick’s “A Little Something for Us Tempunauts.” Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” was adapted into the iconic sci-fi film Blade Runner, and here he straddles the line between science fiction and horror by positing a time-travel voyage gone horribly wrong.

While most of the stories in this anthology are well-chosen, there are a couple of puzzling omissions. John W. Campbell Jr.’s “Who Goes There?”, the basis for John Carpenter’s movie The Thing, is influential enough to have been included in the SFWA’s Science Fiction Hall of Fame. And while Harlan Ellison’s “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” is certainly a chilling tale, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” surely merits inclusion in an anthology of short horror fiction. Despite this, however, the collection is certainly a worthy purchase for anyone looking for a comprehensive survey of horror stories up to the 1980s.

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“Ghost Wall” by Sarah Moss

The theme of Sarah Moss’s latest novel, Ghost Wall, can be summed up by a William Faulkner quote: “The past is never dead. It isn’t even really past.” Sylvie’s father plans an unusual vacation for their family: joining a local college professor’s project to spend a couple of weeks living the way British people did in the Bronze Age. This involves some of the physical discomforts you would expect, such as foraging for food in the summer heat and living in huts. But things take a darker turn as Sylvie’s father’s fascination with the period deepens into obsession. And not all the hazards of the era were natural ones; there’s evidence that a nearby bog was a site of human sacrifice.

Several times, Sylvie’s father makes some pronouncement about how things were done “back then,” only for the professor to reply that experts aren’t really sure. The past that Sylvie’s father is so invested in is part constructed or imagined. Ghost Wall asks what happens when our narratives about “how things used to be” are challenged. It also points out our tendency to gloss over or romanticize the uglier parts of history. In the mind of Sylvie’s father, the early Britons were better than modern people, living close to the land and having a tight-knit community. They didn’t live in fear of nuclear war or mass shootings. But they also practiced human sacrifice.

The way Sylvie’s father allows his imagined past to become more real than the present also lends itself to social commentary. Nostalgia for “the good old days” can lead to a resistance to change or an unwillingness to challenge an unjust status quo. At one point in the story, the characters build the titular “ghost wall,” which was originally believed to be a defense against invaders. For Sylvie’s father, modernity itself is the invader, and he tries to keep it out with the ghosts of the past, whether metaphorical or literal.

For such a short book, Ghost Wall is surprisingly complex in its themes. However, I found my enjoyment of it undermined somewhat by the simplicity of one of its central characters. Sylvie’s father is so one-dimensional that it’s impossible to feel any sympathy for him. I think the story of his growing obsession would have been stronger if he had started out as a stern but reasonably decent person and steadily become harsher and more unstable as said obsession deepened. As it is, he feels like a cardboard cutout, which stands in startling contrast to the nuance of the rest of the book.

“Beneath the Twisted Trees” by Bradley P. Beaulieu

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The fourth book in Bradley P. Beaulieu’s Song of the Shattered Sands series ramps up the action and the stakes even more than the previous volumes. The simmering tensions among the Kings of Sharakhai come to a head, a new faction enters the power struggle, and Çeda continues her quest to free the asirim.

In my review for the previous book, I noted that the gods were beginning to take a more active role in the story. This trend continues in Twisted Trees, with no fewer than three deities putting in personal appearances. We even get a brief section from the point of view of one god. One plot thread also provides more information about a previous generation of deities who left the setting uncounted ages ago. What started as a conflict between human factions has expanded, and at this point in the story, it’s clear that Sharakhai sits at the center of a divine plot centuries in the making. Beaulieu doesn’t let this rob his mortal characters of agency, however. Powerful as the gods are, they aren’t omnipotent, and we’ve already seen some of their designs thwarted by the actions of Çeda and her friends.

The increasing complexity of the plot isn’t limited to divine intervention, either. Twisted Trees brings a new faction to the forefront of the plot: the Enclave, a group of blood magi operating in Sharakhai. They’re only one plot thread among many, and several of the characters are newly introduced in this book, so we haven’t had as much time with them as we have with other groups like the Moonless Host or the Kings. Despite that, Beaulieu is able to give a sense that these are fully developed characters with their own histories, relationships, and agendas. The romance between Esmeray and Davud does suffer a bit for the relatively little page space spent on the blood magi, but overall their inclusion adds another layer to the story.

We also learn a bit more about both Mirea and Malasan. As the Shattered Sands series has progressed, its focus has expanded to include the nations around Sharakhai. As with the gods, the machinations of Sharakhai’s human neighbors have come out into the open as the Kings are weakened. Of the two, I found the Mirean plotline more engaging, largely because I’ve had a soft spot for Brama since he was introduced. (And while his ehrekh companion Rümayesh isn’t exactly a sympathetic character, she’s certainly intriguing.)

As the book ends, things are shaping up for the final conflict, and there’s a cliffhanger for one major character. The final book in the series, When Jackals Storm the Walls, is slated to come out in 2020. In addition, Beaulieu is currently working on a novella set in the Shattered Sands universe. I’m eagerly looking forward to both of these. While it will be sad to see this series come to a close, I have no doubt that Beaulieu will bring it to a satisfying conclusion.

“Beneath the Sugar Sky” by Seanan McGuire

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The third book in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, is in some ways a return to the beginning. The plot kicks off when timey-wimey shenanigans result in the character Sumi having a daughter, Rini—despite Sumi having been murdered in the first book, before ever having conceived a child. But reality is catching up to Rini, and she’s gradually fading away. Unless a group of students from Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children can somehow restore Sumi to life, Rini will disappear forever.

Kade and Christopher, two of the side characters from Every Heart a Doorway, take their place in the spotlight here. McGuire also introduces us to new characters, and with them, new worlds. The dimensions to which the Wayward Children travel have always been almost characters in their own right, and the latest installment gives us more insight into how they work. The terms used to categorize the worlds, such as Logic and Nonsense, aren’t just descriptors. They have real weight, and we see the difficulties a character attuned to a Logical world faces in moving through a Nonsense one. Moreover, some worlds are metaphysically closer to each other than others. Christopher, whose doorway took him to an Underworld, feels almost—but not quite—at home in a different Underworld that the characters pass through in their quest to rescue Sumi.

Belonging is one of the major themes of the Wayward Children series. The children stay at Eleanor West’s school because it’s the one place where their experiences will be affirmed. Sometimes, it’s just as much of a struggle for them to receive validation of the more mundane aspects of their identities. Every Heart a Doorway introduced us to Kade, a transgender boy who was forcibly returned to the “real” world when the all-female society of his otherworld rejected him. Nancy, in the same book, faced widespread incomprehension of her asexuality. Beneath the Sugar Sky gives us Cora, an overweight girl who also happened to be a mermaid in her otherworld. Her fear that others will react negatively to her weight pervades many of her experiences, from cramming into the backseat of a car to traveling through Rini’s Candyland-esque native reality. Seeing her find acceptance among the other Wayward Children was heartwarming.

A fourth installment in the series, In an Absent Dream, is already out, and a fifth, Come Tumbling Down, is scheduled for a January 2020 release. I’m hoping we’ll see more of Cora and Rini in these stories, as well as the more-established characters.

“The Girl in the Tower” by Katherine Arden

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The Girl in the Tower is the second book in Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy. Having escaped from the Bear, but at the cost of her father’s life, Vasya (Vasilisa) flees her home. After taking shelter with Morozko for a time, she sets out to travel, wanting to see more of Rus and perhaps beyond. But when she comes across burned villages whose survivors tell of kidnapped children, she finds herself drawn into a plot that threatens not only her family, but her whole country.

The book gets off to a slow start but is really engaging once it picks up. We see Vasya’s brother Alexei and sister Olga again, and the relationship between Vasya and her siblings forms the emotional core of the book. In particular, there’s a focus on how her bond with the chyerti and with more powerful magical beings like Morozko strains her relationships with other humans. That tension helps to keep the story grounded, even as it introduces a couple of famous figures from Eastern European folklore. Vasya’s relationship to some of these people, human and otherwise, changes substantially at the climax of the novel, which sets up an interesting situation for the third and final installment.

One aspect of the story did bother me, but as it involves spoilers for a major plot point, I’ll discuss it below. Overall, I enjoyed The Girl in the Tower and am looking forward to seeing how Vasya’s journey resolves in The Winter of the Witch.

 

 

 

 

For a large part of the book, Vasya is disguising herself as a boy. While the bulky clothing worn by people during a Russian winter makes it easy for her to hide her feminine body shape, her long hair is another matter. She stuffs it under a hat, but inevitably the hat is lost during an incident that involves strenuous physical activity, and her gender is revealed. It seems to me that it would have been much smarter for her to simply cut her hair, and while Vasya can be impulsive, she’s never struck me as being so stupid or oblivious that the idea wouldn’t occur to her. Having her keep her hair felt like the author was handing her the Idiot Ball to facilitate the dramatic reveal.

“The Way of Kings” by Brandon Sanderson

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After enjoying Brandon Sanderson’s standalone novel Elantris and consistently hearing great things about his longer works, I finally started into his epic fantasy series The Stormlight Archive. The first volume, The Way of Kings, follows several characters in a world that’s heading toward some sort of apocalyptic event. Kaladin was once a respected squad leader in Alethkar’s army but has now been condemned to life as a slave. Dalinar, uncle to the king of Alethkar, has been experiencing disturbing visions during the storms that periodically sweep the continent. Shallan has concocted a daring plan to save her family from ruin but soon finds herself entangled in even larger events.

In some ways, The Stormlight Archive bears similarities to other epic fantasy series. There’s magic, mystical creatures and phenomena, prophecies, and a setting with monarchial governments and a medieval level of technology. But Sanderson finds ways to make his world stand apart from others. One difference I greatly appreciated is that the world of Roshar changes. Many stories feature worlds where technology has stagnated: people are using the same technologies to raise buildings, procure food, and fight their enemies that their ancestors of five generations ago used. Within just the first Stormlight book, we see people making incremental progress in attempting to recreate the rare and ancient Shardblades, while a pair of scientists make a new discovery about the fairylike spren. The people of Roshar are actively investigating the natural laws that underpin their world and discovering new things.

Among fantasy fans, Sanderson is known for creating well-thought-out magic systems. The magic in TWOK is described in concrete, logical terms, so it feels like a natural part of the world, just as chemistry and electromagnetism are. Of course, there are exceptions, but the characters react to these in a logical way: they remark on these phenomena being unusual. This gives the reader confidence that these discrepancies are meaningful and makes you look forward to finding out what’s going on.

Sanderson also has a talent for creating engaging characters. Dalinar could easily come off as stuffy or self-righteous, but his genuine love for his family and country makes his quest to reform the Alethi army sympathetic. Kaladin’s growing ties to the other members of Bridge Four and the small victories he wins on their behalf get the reader to root for him. Shallan’s cunning and her determination to save her family similarly get the reader behind her.

Sanderson’s fans refer to the rapid-fire sequence of revelations that tends to come at the end of his novels as the “Sanderlanche.” The Sanderlanche at the end of TWOK hits a perfect balance between answering questions the reader’s been asking throughout the book and presenting new ones. It encourages the reader to put the pieces together and theorize about what’s going to happen next. My own theories for the second book, Words of Radiance, are below. (Obviously, these include spoilers for TWOK.) I’m eagerly looking forward to seeing how accurate (or not!) they turn out to be.

 

 

  1. The Knights Radiant forsook their charge to protect humanity because they learned about the enslavement of the parshmen and refused to countenance it.
  2. The spirits that Shallan sees are truthspren.
  3. Renarin was even sicklier as an infant, to the point where he wasn’t expected to live long. Dalinar sought out the Old Magic to save him.
  4. Dalinar will save Elhokar from Szeth’s assassination attempt by speaking one of the ideals of the Knights Radiant, which will give him a power-up the way it did for Kaladin.

Shimmer Issue 46, by E. Catherine Tobler (editor)

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After thirteen years of publication, Shimmer is closing. They’ve consistently delivered high-quality speculative fiction, and they pulled out all the stops for their final year. Gabriela Damián Mirvete won the Tiptree Award for “They Will Dream in the Garden”, and the magazine as a whole has been nominated for a Hugo Award.

Shimmer’s final issue, #46, was included in the Hugo voters’ packet. As one would expect, there are some great stories in here, and I would be hard pressed to choose a single favorite. If I did have to choose, I would probably go with Cory Skerry’s “Antumbra,” since I’m a sucker for a good changeling story. Honestly, this one is worthy of a Hugo nomination in its own right. One extra bit of icing on the cake is that the piece taught me a new word: “antumbra” refers to one of the three parts of a shadow (and it makes perfect sense as a title, once you learn a bit about the main characters and their relationship to each other).

Mary Robinette Kowal’s “Rust and Bone” could also be read as a changeling story, though not as directly. While there was some wonderfully vivid imagery, the story was less engaging than it could have been because we never really find out why the main character’s mother gave her up to Grandmother or what she got in return. (We’re also never told clearly what Grandmother is, though the line about her rocking chair being made of iron suggests that if this is a take on the changeling myth, the traditional role of the species is reversed.)

“40 Facts About the Strip Mall at the Corner of Never and Was” by Alex Acks is another strong story. The list format can be hit-or-miss, but Acks does a great job of relating a coherent tale with very brief vignettes.

I also enjoyed Steve Toase’s “Streuobstweise.” The title is a German word for “orchard,” which is a central location in the story. The piece is filled with evocative imagery, particularly some drawing on senses other than sight. It’s an unsettling, claustrophobic story that straddles the line between fantasy and horror.

One thing that surprised me about the issue was how many stories had a science fictional premise, since Shimmer has tended to lean heavily toward contemporary fantasy. A.C. Wise’s “The Time Traveler’s Husband” and Leonie Skye’s “Tryannocora Regina” both deal with time travel or alternate timelines. “The Time Traveler’s Husband,” in particular, is an engaging and complex story. Readers familiar with Audrey Niffinegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife” may get something extra out of it, since Wise has stated that her piece is a direct response to that novel. Wren Wallis’s “Ghosts of Bari” is another sci-fi story, this one more in a space opera vein. It’s notable for being the last story published by Shimmer.

While I’m sad to see Shimmer end, I appreciate that they’re going out on a high note. There’s a variety of stories here, most of them strong. It’s a worthy Hugo nominee, and a tribute to all the work Shimmer has done over the years.