The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror series is dead.
… but long live the year’s best horror?
Subterranean magazine is a plain Jane. It has a straightforward and unfussy layout — not for Subterranean the glamour stylings of an Interzone. Issue 7 has an introduction by guest editor Ellen Datlow, but it’s brief, to-the-point, and assumes the reader already knows what they’re reading. It doesn’t tell you what Subterranean is, or why it is. It does tell you what Datlow’s remit for the issue was, but since that’s “anything you want”, it’s less helpful than it might otherwise be. (“Anything” turns out to be, as you may expect, a novella and six stories that are all, to some extent, engaged with both fantasy and darkness.) Moreover, and unlike the magazine’s online incarnation, there’s no other non-fiction content: no columns, no reviews. So there are just the stories — which, given the rather abstract recent brouhaha about the triumph of competence, makes the magazine an interesting test case. (I wish people would get down to specifics more, when this debate rolls around.) An Interzone could be bought by someone solely for the non-fiction content. (I know, because if it wasn’t for the non-fiction content I’d have stopped buying Interzone a couple of years ago.) Subterranean doesn’t have that get-out. It stands or falls on the stories.
So anchoring the issue with a novella by Lucius Shepard is a smart move, even if it was a last-minute substitution, since Shepard is regularly more than competent and rarely, if ever, less. The competition for “best Shepard story of the year” may not be as stiff now as it was a few years ago, but it’s still a tough race — which is to say that although “Vacancy” isn’t going to take the crown, it’s still worth your time. The tale of Cliff Coria, fifty-something ex-small time actor, having now carved out “the most satisfying of dissatisfying lives” as a used car salesman, is big, solid stuff, and similar in a couple of interesting ways to “Stars Seen Through Stone”, another Shepard story published earlier this year in F&SF. In both stories, the protagonist is a knowledgeable guide to some of the low-rent districts of a relentlessly capitalist entertainment industry, both stories are bedded in a particularly American kind of grubby existence (is it my imagination, or is Shepard writing more directly about America than he used to?), and in both stories there is some of Shepard’s most heartening writing about the ways men can relate to women. The protagonists of both “Vacancy” and “Stars Seen Through Stone” — and, indeed, the women with whom they form relationships — are people who have lived lives, and arrived at some measure of self-awareness. Enough, at least, for them to fumble towards an accommodation that we as readers can actually believe in, which is not always a given in Shepard’s stories.
There’s also an interesting inversion: in “Stars Seen Through Stone”, the protagonist introduces his tale by assuring us that there are strange things happening every day that people don’t notice, while in “Vacancy” Cliff is somehow sensitised to anything out of the ordinary. In the opening pages of the story, mysteries and coincidences dog his steps. What, for instance, is the deal with the multiple checkins to Bungalow 11 at the Celeste motel (across the road from his car dealership) — normal, if illicit, liaisons, or something more sinister? What of the striking similarity between the daughter of the Celeste’s owner, and an actress Cliff worked with (and slept with) years ago, in a low-budget fantasy action film? And what of the disappearance of Marley, the woman Cliff might be falling in love with? The latter two questions have, or appear to have, rational answers that don’t take too long to surface; the first question is the one that haunts the novella, and ultimately provides its horrific (in the bluntest sense) climax. But although it would be too strong to say that the supernatural elements of the story feel tacked-on, “Vacancy” is first a character study. The tentative deepening of the relationship between Cliff and Marley is deeply believable; when Cliff confides in (the much younger) Marley that “it’s like I’m empty, and growing emptier. That’s what I’m scared of” it’s such a startlingly unlikely thing for a Shepard Guy to say out loud, yet so clearly the right thing for him to say, that you nearly want to cheer.
But that quote also points up the main problem with “Vacancy” which is, oddly, that it’s too neat. Shepard has used the fantastic as a backdrop, rather than a subject, before, but this time around the titular absence insinuates itself too smoothly into every aspect of the story: into the disappearances and unsolved mysteries, into the commentary on how what seems to be innocence can be mere superficiality (and vice versa) for which a Hollywood career is the perfect supporting metaphor, and into the hollowness that Cliff feels inside his life. When I first read “Stars Seen Through Stone”, I thought it was less than a complete success for precisely the opposite reason: the elements didn’t fit so neatly. But scenes and images from that story have stayed with me in a way that scenes and images from “Vacancy” just haven’t, and I think it’s something to do with the fact that “Stars” is a messier tale. Put another way, “Vacancy” has both the strengths and the pitfalls of competence. (It also has a separate problem, which is that its portrayal of the Malaysian family that owns the Celeste Motel flirts with both exoticisation and stereotyping, and unfortunately makes it less easy than you’d hope to be confident that Shepard is deliberately pointing out the superficiality of such an approach to immigrant culture.) By the time the climax rolls around, the theme has become almost stifling, and an entire paragraph about Cliff’s uncertainty (“Cliff is astonished by how thoroughly the circumstance has neutralized him. He knows nothing for certain … it’s the very nebulousness of the situation that persuades him that his life has gone and is going horribly wrong”, 76) just seems excessive.
Still, “Vacancy” is not a story that isn’t reaching for something. The same can’t be said of all the stories in Subterranean 7, and in particular it can’t be said of “City of Night”, by Joel Lane and John Pelan, which is a triumph of competence exclusively in the worst sense of the phrase. Our protagonist this time around is Paul, a man who finds himself travelling to the titular city in his dreams, until the dreams become more real than his daily life. His story is filled with paragraphs like this:
Here and there, he thought he could see traces of recent human activity. A blanket had been nailed over a window-frame; the entry to a basement had been swept free of rubble; there were some empty food cartons and bottles in the remains of a bus shelter. But he couldn’t see any people, and knocking and calling met with no response. Sometimes he could see pale jointed creatures crawling among the broken stones like thoughts he couldn’t face; but the only human being he found in hours of searching was a bald man who poked his head out of a window and screamed at Paul until he ran away. (28)
It’s a functional paragraph, in that the sentences are coherent and reading it creates an image in my head (or rather, adds to the image that previous paragraphs have started to create). But nothing in it evokes any feeling beyond boredom. The details — the blanket, the food cartons, the bus shelter — feel borrowed in the worst way, too familiar to evoke the desolation they so schematically describe. The same is true of the “pale jointed creatures”, or the later description of a larger creature as “a figure from a madman’s delirium” (29). And “like thoughts he couldn’t face”, coming at a point where the reader and Paul both believe he’s in a particularly vivid dream, seems too obvious. Only the screaming bald man is really incongruous enough to make you notice him.
All of which would be permissable in another story with a different focus. But for most of its length “City of Night” seems to be trying hard to be scary, or at least unsettling, and blank description like that above doesn’t cut it. It’s not bad so much as bland; too much light, not enough shadow. Strangely enough, the story works much better when it’s talking about sex, which is fairly often: the protagonist’s sexuality is questioned and answered in a nicely underplayed manner, and the ending has the sort of post-coital glow of understanding more usually associated with science fiction. But it’s a desperate plod to get there.
Terry Bisson’s contribution, “Pirates of the Somali Coast”, is preferable; although it struggles to reach competence, at least it keeps you awake. If there was a fantastic element in the story I blinked and missed it, but that’s not to say the story doesn’t engage with the idea of fantasy, and it’s certainly eager to be about human darkness. The narrator and protagonist is a boy of unspecified age, but probably early teens, on board the South African cruise ship African Princess with his aunt and uncle. He tells his story not to us, but to his mom and his best friend, Bug, through a series of emails; the parallax between the two accounts is interesting, and occasionally amusing, but (warning bell) not an essential part of the story’s construction. The most notable characteristic of both versions of the story is the narrator’s utter inability to distinguish reality from fantasy. When the Princess is attacked and captured by “pirates” — Arab terrorists of some unspecified kind, whose motives may have something to do with diverting the liner from its planned passage through the Suez Canal; I couldn’t tell you how closely this matches up to the real-world pirates of the region — our hero is thrilled. He thinks the whole thing is a staged entertainment. Here’s how he describes part of the aftermath of the capture:
Ali [the “Pirate captain”] let me help with the Pillaging. He likes my hat. They lined up all the ladies and took their rings and jewels. Sometimes they just cut their fingers right off. I helped pick them up like little wurms. They were all begging for mercy, not the Pirates of course, they were laughing. Then they raped some. Ugh. That was like sex fighting. Pirates like the fat ones best. Theres lots of blood, xspecially on the stairs and they dont clean it up. It makes it more realistic. Yo ho ho (47)
Predictably, the attack turns out to be real — the Navy eventually retake the ship and send the narrator to a “greaf countsler”, thus preventing what would have been to me the most disturbing interpretation of the story, that it is some kind of simulation, an utterly debased entertainment. (You could argue that such an interpretation is prevented from the get-go, by the fact that the narrator’s emails are dated between July 20 and August 9 this year; but there are easy ways Bisson could have got round that, so I’d reserved judgment.) What we’re left with is the story of a boy who believes that he’s in the middle of some elaborate, not to mention gratuitously savage, stage show. This belief is strangely innocent — probably the best line in the story comes after the pirates leave, when he tells his mom that “it was kind of sad after all the Plundering and Pillaging, like at the movie when the show is over and everybody stands up” — but never takes on the chilling cast of true indifference because it’s never quite believable.
The narrator’s capacity for delusion seems too extreme: would any child, no matter how desensitized by contemporary film and video games, fail to notice that severed fingers were the real thing? Or be that blasé about rape? Perhaps such a character could be created, but the flatness of Bisson’s faux-teenage typos prevents this teenager from coming alive in the way that he needs to. (Admittedly, I have basically no communication with teenagers, beyond what I occasionally see on message boards, but the style of “Pirates” reeks to me of trying too hard.) He is an absence of character, rather than a character with an absence. And once you stop believing in the narrator, the rest of the story is too flimsy to stand. A bit of handwaving at the start, for instance, tells us that the email service on board the African Princess is “send only”, which sounds deeply improbable, and the excuses for the pirates to leave the narrator alive are increasingly tenuous, even allowing for the fact that what we’re reading is probably not what actually happened. Moreover, I can’t shake the feeling that a more interesting story would have challenged the narrator’s obliviousness somehow. As it is, “Pirates of the Somali Coast” ends with the narrator heading for the airport to be reunited with his parents, still firm in the belief that he’ll see his murdered aunt and uncle and friends again.
A more complete triumph of voice, but an equally complete failure of story, is Anna Tambour’s “The Jeweller of Second-Hand Roe”, in which a self-described garrulous narrator dribbles incidents at us in the hope that they’ll eventually add up to a whole. They don’t; but the story is short enough that any impatience with this is outweighed by the fact that the incidents are worth the time it takes to read them. Better all around is Lisa Tuttle’s “Mr Boudreaux”, which looks at first to be as traditional as the Lane/Pelan story, but ends up in far more interesting places. The protagonist, returning to her childhood home of Houston, has death on her mind — specifically, the death of her mother, although the two have not been particularly close for some time, a distance imparted (the protagonist feels) by how selfish her own life choices seem compared to those of her parent. Tuttle’s evocation of Houston-that-is and Houston-as-the-protagonist-remembers-it is skilful, and the shifts between the two — such as when the protagonist goes for a walk in the woods, and reflects that, as an adult, she is too aware of the dangers of an insect bite or a poisonous plant to experience wonder, only for something wondrous to intrude on the story — are affecting, but you wonder if the story will ever escape convention (or competence). A deathbed promise to “take care of” the titular character, despite the fact that the protagonist is pretty sure he’s been dead for some time, leaves us expecting a ghost at the family home. What is actually waiting is something stranger; the end of the story is handled with great tenderness, and demonstrates a touching belief in the power of (metaphorically) connecting with another soul, bound up with the protagonist’s acceptance of Houston — somewhere she feels she does not belong “by choice, sensibility, and heritage” — as home.
Equally good at integrating voice, place and story is Richard Bowes’ “The King of the Big Night Hours”, in which the fantastic hovers around an occurrence that might be, as the narrator puts it, “more uncanny than coincidental”. The tale is another of Bowes’ meditations on New York and gay life and past decades (here the seventies), and person and memory are mingled as effectively as ever. The titular King was a Jamaican security guard at the university where the narrator works, and the titular Hours were nine pm to midnight, the shift the King wangled for himself at the university gym. In the story’s present, both are gone, but recalled by a train of thought started by a student suicide. Bowes’ narrator is a working-ish-class guy, having drifted into a library admin job many years earlier. Through his skin we feel the aftershocks of the suicide. We are understanding, and yet are sickened, when, after a second, nearly-identical suicide, the campus response is more coordinated and slick — “an etiquette was being worked out”, he notes — and we think more about the tragedy of memory, what people remember about each other and (more significantly, the story suggests), what they don’t, or what they can’t because they never knew each other in the first place. Like “Pirates of the Somali Coast”, I can’t tell how closely Bowes’ story tracks real events here; but unlike Bisson, Bowes shows he can create fiction around fact that is more than polemic. The memory that the narrator’s recollection eventually uncovers is exactly the combination of place and person that it needs to be, and worth savouring.
Two stories remain, both a cut above the rest. M. Rickert is a writer whose ability to involve the reader is second to none; and in “Holiday”, her penchant for dissecting the darker things in life is as front-and-centre has ever been. The combination makes for a deeply disconcerting experience, as Rickert makes you judge the character she’s created, and then doubt that judgement, and yourself. “Holiday” is the first-person, present-tense story of a man, working-class from his idiom (though I’ll come back to that), who is writing a book about the conviction of his father for child abuse that he didn’t commit — except that actually, the narrator knows full well, probably from personal experience, that his father did commit the crimes he was accused of. The young girl who turns up to haunt him on the first page of the story could, therefore, be an expression of the guilt the narrator feels for not telling the truth. But since she’s a famous, instantly recognisable victim of abuse herself (though she will say only that her name is “Holiday”; if there’s a real headline here, it’s even more buried than in Bowes and Bisson’s stories), she could also be a bona fide restless spirit; or she could be an expression of a more personal guilt for the narrator, which is the oppressive possibility that intensifies as the story develops. Reading the story a second time you can spot all the moments that do double-service, creating either sympathy or horror depending on how you read them. Take this, for instance, when the narrator goes to a park:
They are so young. So perfect, with their perfect skin and little teeth and they are dirty, and bratty, and crying, and laughing and completely absorbed by the sand in the sandbox, or the need to traverse the bars, dangling above the dangerous ground, holding tight, and it’s obvious it hurts, but they are determined, stubborn, wild, beautiful. I could watch them for hours, but instead I just watch for a little while, I know too well what the grownups will think about someone like me, a young man, all alone, watching children play. I turn away, hunched against the sudden cold, walking slowly, soon no longer able to hear the laughter and the sound of their voices, shouting names, or shouting nonsense.
God, how I envy them. (36)
Notice, first, how much more effective this is at creating atmosphere than the Lane/Pelan paragraph quoted above, and how much more a coherent voice it is than the Bisson. And the first time you read it, it might easily strike you (it struck me) as sympathetic. Here is a man, it seems, stuck on the outside, who sees in playing children the emptiness of his own life and who — worse – is too aware of how that emptiness will be perceived by others. We might even take a moment to reflect on the climate our society has created, in which it is not possible to express, or even to hold, an honest appreciation for the joy that children can inspire. But read again. In the context of the rest of his narrative, his eloquence here, particularly in that long second sentence, stands out; and is it just by chance that the children’s appearance — their “perfect skin” — is the first thing he notices? Why does he know “too well” what the grownups (not the other grownups) will think of his observation? And is it ultimately their community he envies, or something else?
It’s not that the narrator doesn’t deserve our sympathy, necessarily. When his brother calls him a pervert, saying that he’s grown up to be just like their father, it stings; and when he utterly fumbles an exchange with a checkout assistant, while buying party supplies for Holiday and her friends, we feel a pang because we believe in his sincerity. This is how he describes the party to Holiday: “It’ll be a holiday party, an every holiday, and I don’t say this part, but you know, for all the ones they’ve missed” (38). We want to believe in his innocence in part because it seems so unfair that he should be guilty. He is not a monster. He is — and it’s the possibility that’s chilling, the combination of a very human darkness with a supernatural one — a man who may have done monstrous things.
Rickert’s story is fine indeed, and the most complete expression of several themes (innocence, emptiness, complicity) that, in one of those coincidences of publication, circle through most of the issue’s other stories like sharks. It is not more challenging, or “edgier” than a story like “Pirates of the Somali Coast”, not in any meaningful sense; nor does it have less of a point to make. But it is better expressed in just about every way. Even so, it’s not the most technically accomplished story in Subterranean 7; for my money, that would be Jeffrey Ford’s offering, which strikes out on a separate trail entirely. “Under the Bottom of the Lake” is not a long story — my guesstimate is a little over 5,000 words — and it’s mostly told simply, without great flights of description or pangs of emotion. But it’s an extraordinary feat of narrative construction, one that grips because of its evident but undistracting complexity. It opens with an instantly evocative glimpse of an artefact in the titular location, “a bubble of rose colored glass, within which swirls a secret story, told once but never heard”. The problem is that the teller of the tale — whose identity remains a mystery until the final sentence, though the clues are laid out in plain sight — can’t himself get any closer to the bubble. “What’s called for,” he tells us, “is someone to discover it”, by which he means a character who can reveal more of the story than the narrator can see. Throughout its length, “Under the Bottom of the Lake” embellishes this idea of the limitations of narration — when describing one of his characters, for instance, he dodges the responsibility of judgement: “I’m no judge of looks” — and the sense is one of revealing what is already there, rather than creating something out of whole cloth, which is a nice trick if you can manage it, and often part of the trick, I think, of effective horror.
Moreover the story being seen (the story within “Under the Bottom of the Lake”) itself contains more stories, accessed through rings or bubbles: of glass, of light, of gum, of smoke. In addition to the initial characters, Emily and Vincent, whose path takes them down under the bottom of the lake and towards the secret, we get glimpses of Vincent’s old man, and of Cassius Cake, patriarch of a local (wealthy) family. At times the stories collide, seeming to be taking place at the same moment (which of course, on the page, they are): “Vincent’s old man turns and runs across the moonlit lawn, Cake wakes in his canopied bed and clutches his chest, Emily calls over her shoulder, “look at this”, and points ahead to a grotto surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites; a dragon’s mouth inviting entry.” Eventually, of course, the glass bubble is broken, revealing the secret story, which folds all the others snugly together. It seems that the story will end in the same way as Tuttle’s, with a moment of strange grace, a new generation redeeming the past: but then that final sentence sneaks up and reveals that the whole story is a trap, another secret to be spirited away. It is, of course, more than competent; it is a triumph.
Hand in hand with the latest iteration of angst about story quality has come the latest iteration of angst about the survival of sf magazines. Warren Ellis posted the 2006 subscription numbers for the “big three” magazines, Analog, Asimov’s and F&SF: they’re down again, sharply. Cory Doctorow suggested some possible publicity strategies, and once again various people have commented. (It’s actually through a publicity strategy of the sort that Doctorow suggested that I ended up with a copy of Subterranean 7, although it was the editor who decided to do a blogger giveaway, rather than the publisher.) For Subterranean that ship has sailed — the next print issue, I believe, will be the last — and I can’t say I’m hugely bothered as long as the online incarnation continues. I would prefer that the Rickert and Ford stories, in particular, were online, because then you could go and read them. But I can see the arguments for print magazines. Where things get a bit hazy for me is when I see people accusing magazines of printing filler, or big names for the sake of it, or whatever. This is largely because I can’t bring myself to expect to like all the stories in every issue of a magazine, or even, necessarily, most of the stories, since the truth is that the only person who’s going to like every story a magazine publishes is the editor.
Maybe I read short fiction magazines in a different way to most people. What I don’t do is read magazines — or, in fact, any anthology of short stories — with the expectation of constant satisfaction. I read magazines in part to keep up with new material by authors whose work I know I enjoy, and in part for the undiscovered, the unpredictable, the unexpected. I’m not saying the magazines we have are well-adapted to the market we have, because that’s clearly not the case. I’d be as happy as anyone if the physical incarnation of Asimov’s wasn’t so ugly as to be bordering on the offensive, and I’d prefer Fantasy to have covers that don’t make people on the tube think I’m reading porn. (True story, although a bit of a moot point, since Fantasy, like Subterranean, is heading online.) Nor am I saying we should expect bad stories, or that we should ignore bad stories. Quite the opposite: as I said way back at the start, I think specifics are vital in any discussion of this kind. But if we have to talk about “value for money”, which is what one strand of the discussion seems to come down to, I don’t need to like that high a proportion of stories to justify my subscription; what’s good about a subscription is that I get many more stories to sample for my pound than I would buying the equivalent value of no-more-reliable (although admittedly more durable) anthologies. In fact, if I liked everything I’d be worried, because it would suggest to me that the magazine was in a rut, not trying new things or trying to reach different audiences. So I expect variability; embrace it, even. It seems to me it goes with the terrain. Satisfaction isn’t measured in page count, and stories like “Holiday” and “Under the Bottom of the Lake” make everything worth it.