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“The Twisted Ones” by T. Kingfisher

Many stories that fall under the “weird fiction” umbrella are set in either England or New England, but there seems to be a recent trend of placing such tales in Appalachia. Brian Hodge’s I’ll Bring You the Birds from Out of the Sky is set in West Virginia, and T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones takes place in North Carolina. This is particularly interesting since Kingfisher’s novel is very directly and openly inspired by Arthur Machen’s The White People, which is set in Wales (where Machen himself grew up). At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of commonality between the two locales, but Kingfisher vividly evokes the lonely atmosphere of wild places to create a link.

Another bridge between the settings is their folklore. The British Isles gave rise to many tales about the Fair Folk, and modern authors like Susanna Clarke and Elizabeth Hand have mined this rich history to tell beautiful and unsettling stories. But Appalachia has its own traditions of haints and odd happenings, and many of the early European immigrants to the area came from the English/Scottish border regions. A blending of the two folk traditions is thus more natural than it might first appear, and indeed Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa novels make the connection explicit. Kingfisher posits that Cotgrave, the main character of the frame story in The White People, emigrated to North Carolina in an attempt to escape some dark knowledge or threat precipitated by his reading of the Green Book. That same mystery begins to reveal itself to his granddaughter when she arrives to clean out the house he and her grandmother shared after they have both died.

Kingfisher gives enough background on The White People that one doesn’t need to have read it to enjoy The Twisted Ones, but having done so does add to the story. She also avoids the biggest potential pitfall of writing a sequel of sorts to a horror or weird fiction story: that in elaborating on some mysterious occurrence, one can reveal too much and drain all the wonder/terror out of it. While Kingfisher does explain things that Machen only hinted at, and gives more details about the mechanics of the supernatural phenomena, parts of the story were still creepy enough to make me reluctant to turn off the lights when it was time to go to bed.

In addition to the main character, known as Mouse, The Twisted Ones presents several interesting side characters. Not the least of these is Mouse’s dog, Bongo. Some reviewers I’ve seen felt Bongo’s constant presence in the narrative was distracting, while others were happy that the novel stated at the beginning that Bongo survived the events of the book. I have to admit to some prejudice here; because Bongo’s personality reminded me very much of my mother-in-law’s recently-deceased dog, I found Bongo delightful and a bit poignant.

Kingfisher has a follow-up novel (it doesn’t seem to be a sequel, but is set in the same universe) called The Hollow Places due out later this year. If it’s anything like The Twisted Ones, I think I’ll enjoy reading it.

“American Elsewhere” by Robert Jackson Bennett

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I loved Robert Jackson Bennett’s fantasy novel Foundryside, so I was looking forward to reading one of his earlier books, American Elsewhere. Upon learning that she’s inherited a house in the tiny southwestern town of Wink, Mona Bright travels there. She discovers that the town holds many secrets: about her mother, her own past, and perhaps even the nature of the universe.

Unfortunately, I found myself somewhat disappointed. The major reason for this is that the book has some pacing issues. The tempo of the first half of the book is very slow, although it does pick up after that. A slow burn can be very effective for a horror story; some of my favorites feature a gradually increasing sense of dread. But a slow burn requires starting the story on low heat. The first chapter of American Elsewhere shows too much and starts at too high a pitch. This undercuts the buildup that comes later. I had a couple of other issues with the book, but since they rely on plot spoilers, I’ll discuss them at the end of the post.

That said, American Elsewhere does show off Bennett’s skills at worldbuilding. The full truth about what’s going on in Wink melds classic cosmic horror tropes with some concepts more often seen in straight-up sci-fi. Like many of the best science fiction stories, it raises interesting philosophical questions about selfhood and the divide between perception and reality.

There are also some genuinely creepy scenes. One of Wink’s inhabitants, an elderly woman named Mrs. Benjamin, has a closet in her kitchen full of exotic teas. An old woman’s tea collection doesn’t seem like it should be even remotely scary, but Bennett manages to turn “retrieving a tea bag from the closet” into an eerie, vertiginous experience. There are a few other scenes like this, and they really add to the atmosphere of the novel.

While American Elsewhere was generally underwhelming, there are glimpses of Bennett’s talent in it, and I’m still eagerly anticipating the future novels in his Founders series.

 

–SPOILERS AHEAD—

 

Coburn (the scientist, not the lab named after him) appears to be trapped in the dimension Mr. First and the others came from, but Mona seems to forget about this entirely. She makes no attempt to bring him back at the end of the book when she returns Parson and Mrs. Benjamin. Also, no explanation is given for why being stuck on the other side doesn’t have the same negative psychological effects on Coburn that the human inhabitants of Wink experience when they see Mother. Both of these things feel like plot holes.

I also didn’t like that Bolan, Dord, and Mallory die without really accomplishing much.

“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.

“Odd Adventures with Your Other Father” by Norman Prentiss

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Odd Adventures with Your Other Father was originally published through the Kindle Scout program, which is perhaps unusual for an established author like the Bram Stoker Award-winning Norman Prentiss. The story has three main characters: Celia and her fathers, Jack and Shawn. Jack died when Celia was little, and Shawn tells her several stories about a summer they spent on a cross-country road trip after graduating from college. These are set within a frame story about Celia enacting a secret plan while she’s away at summer camp.

We learn early on in the book that Jack had a form of telepathy, and other supernatural phenomena exist in the setting as well. The incidents involving these weird happenings are well-written and interesting. But the heart of the story is the family relationships: between Shawn and Celia and between Shawn and Jack. The couple faces ordinary challenges, such as illness and prejudice, alongside the paranormal goings-on. In a similar way, Celia’s own strange experiences relate back to her life with Shawn, her sense of loss over having never really known Jack, the bonds of loyalty and understanding between herself and her best friend.

I did have a couple of stylistic issues with the novel. The primary one is that some of the dialogue doesn’t feel realistic. Elmore Leonard once said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” and some of the dialogue here definitely sounds like writing. But while it isn’t perfect, Odd Adventures with Your Other Father is a book with heart, and that counts for a lot.

“Semiosis” by Sue Burke

Sue Burke’s debut novel, Semiosis, tells the story of a group of human colonists on an alien world. Their charter mandates that they try to live in harmony with the ecosystem of their new home, so they try to use what’s there rather than bringing seeds and livestock from Earth. But as they domesticate native animals and grow native plants, they begin to suspect that some of the life-forms here are smarter than they look.

Burke has set up a profoundly imaginative ecology for her world. She maintains a delicate balance where the setting does feel truly alien, but at the same time is logical enough that the reader can understand how humans survive (and eventually thrive) there. I also enjoyed how she showed us the journey towards mutual understanding from both sides: plant and human. She clearly put a lot of thought into how a sapient plant would communicate, and those details felt believable.

Speaking of sapient plants, the humans’ discovery of such was my one major complaint with the book. This groundbreaking revelation happened too quickly and was accepted too easily by the characters. For one thing, this drains the tension from that section of the story. For another, it doesn’t feel realistic for the characters to uncritically accept something so far outside their experience and expectations. Contrast, for example, the classic Star Trek episode “The Devil in the Dark,” where it takes the better part of the show for Kirk and company to realize the Horta is a thinking being. Having the discovery be so matter-of-fact robs it of some of its wonder and strangeness.

Once the plot moves past this point, however, the rest of the book is excellent. The colonists soon encounter another mystery, and that one kept me engaged and guessing. The later part of the book shows the colonists questioning how to adhere to the founding principles of their society in a difficult situation, and struggling to integrate people who are very different from them into their culture. These themes felt very topical and provided the kind of social commentary good sci-fi is known for.

Semiosis is the first installment of a planned duology. While the book ends on a satisfying note, there are a couple of ideas mentioned that seem like setup for the second part, and I’m interested to see where those go.

“The Half-Souled Woman” published in Twice-Told: A Collection of Doubles

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I’m happy to announce that my short story, “The Half-Souled Woman”, has been published in C.M. Muller’s anthology Twice-Told: A Collection of Doubles. It’s available through Amazon or directly from the publisher.

“Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik

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Naomi Novik has received a lot of acclaim for her Temeraire series. Less well-known is her standalone novel, Uprooted. That was my favorite of all the books I read the year it came out, so I was excited to read her new story, Spinning Silver. Although not directly connected to Uprooted, it takes place in a similar setting: a fantasy world inspired by the folklore and culture of Eastern Europe. Miryem, a moneylender’s daughter, becomes so accomplished at her father’s profession that she brags about being able to turn silver into gold. In true fairy tale fashion, this boast attracts the attention of an otherworldly being and locks Miryem into a potentially deadly bargain.

Uprooted gave us a young woman who is far from the stereotypical damsel in distress. In Spinning Silver, Novik outdoes herself by giving us not one, but three competent heroines. Shrewd, courageous, and compassionate, they face both supernatural (a demon, the Staryk) and mundane (an abusive father, political intrigue) threats.

The main character, Miryem, is Jewish, and rather than just being another aspect of her character, her faith plays an important role in the story. It informs her actions and changes the way other characters see her. Two specific rituals of the Jewish faith—the blessing of the first fruits and the traditional wedding dance—are pivotal to the plot.

Another aspect of the story that I really enjoyed was the portrayal of the Staryk, supernatural beings associated with winter and cold. As in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the depiction of the fairies draws from old tales in which even seemingly friendly interactions with them can be dangerous. No gift comes without a price, and you’d better be sure you understand the meaning of any agreement you make. Novik does a great job of taking the reader along for the ride as Miryem navigates the rules by which the Staryk live and die.

Spinning Silver easily lived up to the high expectations set by Uprooted. It’s currently at the top of my Hugo nominations list for the novel category, and I think it will be hard for anything to dislodge it.