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Monthly Archives: October 2015

Stories to read on Halloween with the lights off

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As the residents of Halloween Town sing in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, “Life’s no fun without a good scare.” I’ve always loved horror stories and weird fiction, and I’ve always been enamored of short stories (regardless of genre). So in honor of All Hallows’ Eve, here are my thirteen favorite scary short stories, in no particular order.

“The Rabbet” by China Mieville (in Three Moments of an Explosion)—The title isn’t a misspelling; a “rabbet” is the groove of a picture frame into which the picture itself fits. There are a number of well-known stories about haunted or otherwise supernatural pictures (Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Grey”, Stephen King’s “The Road Virus Heads North”, etc) but in this one, it’s the frame that takes on a sinister aspect.

“The Music of Erich Zann” by H.P. Lovecraft—This story isn’t nearly as famous as “The Call of Cthulhu” or “The Dunwich Horror,” but it’s always been my favorite of Lovecraft’s works.

“The Erlking” by John Connolly (in Nocturnes)—John Connolly is best known for his detective fiction, but he has also written two collections of weird fiction. This story draws on old legends about fairies for its inspiration—not cutesy Tinkerbell-style fairies, but the Fair Folk known for stealing children.

“N.” by Stephen King (in Just After Sunset)—It was tough picking a favorite Stephen King story, and while I generally prefer his older work, this is one of those stories that sticks with you long after you finish reading it.

“The Deepwater Bride” by Tamsyn Muir (in Fantasy and Science Fiction, July 2015 issue)—You wouldn’t think that Lovecraftian horror and a coming-of-age story about a teenaged girl in suburbia would mix well, but Muir makes it work.

“October in the Chair” by Neil Gaiman (in Fragile Things)—This story, which inspired Gaiman’s novel The Graveyard Book, is a classic ghost tale.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe—This one probably doesn’t need any explanation.

“Mother of Stone” by John Langan (in The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies)—This deeply creepy story did a great job of presenting a mythology behind the entity that the story centers around.

“Technicolor” by John Langan (in The Wide, Carnivorous Sky and Other Monstrous Geographies)—There’s quite a bit of gorgeous imagery in this story, as well as a unique concept.

“The Emissary” by Ray Bradbury (in The October Country)—This story should be heartwarming, focusing as it does on a dog that’s devoted to a bedridden child. But it takes a sharp turn into horror when the child’s tutor dies and Man’s Best Friend tries a little too hard to cheer him up.

“Out and Back” by Barbara Roden (in Northwest Passages)—Several of Roden’s stories fall into the horror category, and they all tend to use an atmosphere of isolation to create unease in the reader. “Out and Back” is particularly successful at this—it’s the kind of story that will make you jump at an unexpected noise.

“Pyret” by Karin Tidbeck (in Jagannath)—Written in the style of a scholarly account, this story about a folkloric being that can shapeshift to mimic other creatures is reminiscent of Jorge Luis Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beings. It takes a turn for the ominous towards the end, and there’s quite a bit of downright eerie imagery.

“Voluntary Committal” by Joe Hill (in 20th Century Ghosts)—Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son, and while most of his writing is in the same general vein as his father’s, he definitely has a voice and style of his own. This story is the last one in his collection 20th Century Ghosts, and it ends the book on a high note.

“The Uncanny Reader: Stories from the Shadows,” edited by Marjorie Sandor

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Like Jeff and Ann Vandemeer’s The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, this anthology collects short weird fiction pieces spanning nearly a century. Some of the featured writers are giants in the field; others are relative newcomers.

Sandor does an excellent job of choosing lesser-known pieces by some of the famous authors that nevertheless exemplify the sense of the uncanny that she was aiming for. For example, Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” has always been my favorite of his stories, partly because of the central role that music plays in it.

One theme of the collection is that “uncanny” doesn’t necessarily mean “supernatural.” Several of the stories here don’t have an obvious paranormal element, but still present a world that’s somewhat off-kilter. Kafka’s “The Stoker” and Shirley Jackson’s “Paranoia” are both populated by characters who, as far as we can tell, are 100% human—but that doesn’t keep them from being unsettling or (in the case of “Paranoia”) downright frightening.

Among the pieces from living writers, I was thrilled to see Karin Tidbeck’s “Reindeer Mountain” and China Mieville’s “Foundation.” I really enjoyed Tidbeck’s short story collection Jagannath, and “Reindeer Mountain” was one of my favorite stories in that book. It also reflects Sandor’s decision to include works from around the world—Tidbeck is Swedish, and the anthology also features pieces by writers hailing from Japan, Egypt, and Poland. Mieville has been one of my favorite authors since I read Perdido Street Station, and while his novels have won both popular and critical acclaim, there seems to be less recognition of his short fiction.

There are one or two authors that I was surprised not to see included here. Jorge Luis Borges has been described as the founder of the magical realism subgenre, and his “The Aleph” seems like a natural choice for an anthology of weird fiction. And I would have loved to see one of Neil Gaiman’s stories, perhaps “The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch” or “Good Boys Deserve Favors.”

This is a great collection for anyone who’s interested in stories that fall under the umbrella of weird fiction. For such readers, The Uncanny Reader will almost certainly offer both stories by established favorites and introductions to previously-unknown voices.

Shimmer, E. Catherine Tobler (editor), March 2015

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This issue starts with a note from the editor-in-chief, E. Catherine Tobler, to the effect that she had felt that Shimmer’s tone was becoming too dark and has begun seeking more hopeful pieces. She cautioned that this doesn’t mean all the stories featured in the magazine are now going to have happy endings, but rather that the main characters will find ways to overcome—or at least cope with—the darkness and adversity they face.

We start to see this theme in the very first story in the issue, Maria Dahvana Headley’s “The Scavenger’s Nursery.” While this story is about an apocalypse, it’s an apocalypse in the original sense of the term—not the end of the world, but a fundamental change, a paradigm shift.

The trend continues in K.L. Perreira’s “The Cult of Death,” which centers around a girl whose voice, like the cry of the mandrake, can kill. Having accidentally killed her father and a boy in her class at school, she finds herself an outcast. The one person who accepted her, her grandmother, is also deceased. She’s all alone…until she discovers that another shunned resident of her town is immune to her deadly power. This piece doesn’t have a “happily ever after,” but it does conclude with both characters finding acceptance from one other person. It’s not an ending, but a beginning.

Michael Ian Bell’s “You Can Do It Again” is a story that can be read as either a piece about hope or one about futility. The protagonist is addicted to Redo, a drug that allows you to relive memories. Some people claim that the drug does more than that, that it allows you to actually travel into the past…in which case, you could change things. This is the hope of the main character, and the story ends in such a way that it’s not clear whether or not that hope will be realized. This is the longest story in this issue, but with an engaging plot and a protagonist that you want to win, it was also my favorite.

Completing the set is Sunny Moraine’s “Come My Love and I’ll Tell You a Tale.” Like the first story in this issue, “Come My Love” is a post-apocalyptic piece. As with all three of the other stories, it gives us a flash of hope in a dark setting. In this case, that hope is provided by the power of stories to remind us of what once was and might be again.

That theme of a light in the darkness ties the four stories together. In each case, it speaks to the possibility of new beginnings and the rediscovery of something precious that was thought lost forever. In my opinion, Ms. Tobler has succeeded in the goal she laid out in her introductory note. The stories presented here are definitely “shimmery”—giving us not a blazing flame but a faint one that might be fanned into something larger.

“The Vorrh” by Brian Catling

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Sculptor Brian Catling’s novel The Vorrh has earned praise from such luminaries as Alan Moore and Michael Moorcock. Set in colonial-era Africa, it deals with the quest of various characters to explore a fictional forest called the Vorrh. Journeying into the Vorrh is extraordinarily dangerous, as it’s said to be inhabited by wild animals, cannibals, and perhaps stranger things. But there’s a reward for anyone who can make it to the forest’s heart: the Garden of Eden, where God still walks.

This is an eclectic book, with elements pulled from different genres. The best way to illustrate this might be to list the characters who set out on the perilous trek: a man carrying a bow made from the bones of a mystic; a wealthy, bored French tourist; a young cyclops raised by android-like beings called the Kin; a former police officer who led an uprising against the British colonists and who is now hunting the bowman. Another character, a photographer suffering from the aftereffects of a traumatic brain injury, never enters the forest—he never even sets foot on the same continent—but is nevertheless affected by it.

Catling maintains a convincing atmosphere of mystery and eeriness surrounding the Vorrh, and some of the best parts of the story occur when that mystery takes on a distinctly ominous tone. For example, consider this passage, in which Ishmael (the boy raised by androids) tries to teach them to laugh:

“But when they came back and laughed for him, it was horrible. It was simply wrong, the grating opposite of what he’d felt and heard…They promised never to do it again. In return, he promised never to scream again, never to sob uncontrollably.”

The one major flaw in this book is the pacing. Once the various characters enter the Vorrh, the story easily keeps the reader engaged. I always wanted to get to the next chapter, to find out whether the hunter would catch up with the bowman, where the cyclops came from, and what secrets might be hiding deeper in the forest. But it took nearly a third of the book to get there. I enjoyed the complexity of the plot and characters, but would have preferred to see the titular location taking center stage earlier.