2009 Shirley Jackson Award Winners

The winners of this year’s Shirley Jackson Awards were announced at Readercon last weekend:

Best Novel: Big Machine by Victor LaValle (Speigel & Grau)
Best Novella: Midnight Picnic by Nick Antosca (Word Riot Press)
Best Novelette: “Morality” by Stephen King (in Esquire)
Best Short Story: “The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler (in Eclipse 3)
Best Single-Author Collection: Tunneling to the Center of the Earth by Kevin Wilson (Harper Perennial), and Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical by Robert Shearman (Big Finish)
Best Edited Anthology: Poe, ed. Ellen Datlow (Solaris)

I’m cautiously optimistic about the SJAs, which are awarded “for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic.” This is their third year, and as for 2007 and 2008, the 2009 winners — and even more so the shortlists — strike me as interesting and inclusive. Partly this just means they’re playing to my taste. I’d had my eye on Big Machine, for instance, since Elizabeth Hand’s glowing review; I was half-hoping for a UK edition, but the award has given me the necessary nudge to order a US copy. Several other nominees and winners are also on the “actually, yes, I’d like to read that” list, which gives me a certain amount of confidence that the ones I haven’t encountered before will also be worth looking at. And Richard Larson’s shortlist review, the first part of which is up at Strange Horizons today (second part on Friday) makes all six of the Best Novel nominees sound worthwhile.

I have a couple of reservations. It’s a juried award, which is good, but I believe that two of the judges for this year’s awards also served for the previous two years. I prefer to see a bit more turnover among the judges — a World Fantasy Award or Clarke Award replacement rate rather than a Campbell Award replacement rate, if you like. I wouldn’t want to see too many ties like this year’s for Best Collection, either. And part of me wishes there were fewer categories, if only to increase my confidence that the jurors are making a thorough survey of the eligible work in each category; but this is a genre award, so everyone must get their spotlight. Still, they’ve had a good track record so far, and I look forward to next year’s shortlists.

In a related confession, I’ve barely read any Shirley Jackson. The recent Library of America volume seems like a good place to start; there’s a review of that at SH this week, too, by L. Timmel Duchamp:

Two themes run through most of the fiction in the volume: the volatility of group dynamics and the collusion of social silence with psychological and even physical violence against individuals who are outsiders or have been excluded from the in-group. Jackson’s fiction is for the most part not actually fantastic, but she frequently depicts behavior and psychological violence that is not acknowledged as such at the conscious level of the narrative, and in doing so presents mundane reality as troubled with sinister currents that can lead, unpredictably, to bizarre and even dangerous situations beyond the individual’s control. Jackson’s treatment of mundane reality, that is to say, casts into sharp relief the artificiality of the style known as “realism.”

(I hadn’t realised LoA use such thin paper, though! I’m afraid to start reading my copy for fear I’ll tear the pages.)

EDIT: See also Laura Miller on is Shirley Jackson a great American writer?

“Shucked” by Adrian Joyce

IZ224 coverAn office, at three in the morning, somewhere in the UK (probably the City); an IT guy, testing some updates to the the company email system, half-asleep; spam messages spilling out into other systems, scrolling across the coffee machine display, corrupting security camera captions, unnoticed; and then spreading, somehow, out into the world; a dark doglike thing breaking into the office, absorbing or changing the man that gets in his way, hunting down the source. It has the sense of a nightmare: a brief, enigmatic, effective slice of techno-horror. Not bad for a first outing.

London Meeting: Michael Marshall Smith

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London meeting is Michael Marshall Smith, author of Only Forward, Spares, Bad Things, The Servants and other novels. He will be interviewed by Kate Bodley.

The venue is the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

As usual, there will be people in the bar from 6-ish, with the interview starting at 7. The meeting is free, and open to any and all, though there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes.

Future meetings (no meeting in December:

27th January 2010 – Jim Burns interviewed by Pete Young
24th February 2010 – David Edgerton interviewed by Shana Worthen
24th March 2010 – BSFA Awards discussion meeting

This is the Summer of Love

This is the Summer of Love coverAs I have noted before, it’s not that I deliberately disparage horror fiction. It’s just that in general, what disturbs me is not, it seems, what disturbs writers of horror, or what such writers think should disturb me. I think this is partly a matter of familiarity, and partly a matter of presentation. Editorial hyperbole, certainly, is never more distracting than when it’s telling you how you’re going to feel. So it’s a shock in itself when the introduction to a story such as Monica J O’Rourke’s “Cell” — “as fiercely uncompromising as anything we’ve published” — really does turn out to denote a story of comparable quality to the work of other newish horror writers such as Joe Hill and M. Rickert. In outline, “Cell” is formulaic: a second-person narrative in which “you” find yourself imprisoned in an unidentified prison, with your fellow inmates being carted off by black-robed folks one by one, or else banging their heads against the wall as a way of committing suicide. Two things make it work: that the narrative doesn’t flinch; and that it is self-interrogative. By the first I don’t mean that it’s graphic, but that it remains tense throughout, and stays true to the totalising, intimidating nature of its premise. (“You” pass in and out of sleep several times; on one such occasion, O’Rourke writes that sleep “has been searching the darkness for you” [74]. Were I to indulge in my own hyperbole, I’d suggest that the same could be said of this story.) And by self-interrogative, I mean that “Cell” foregrounds the nature of both second-person narration and horror fiction. The disjunct between the “you” of the story — a married caucasian Christian man with two children — and the “you” reading is never downplayed; indeed the central questions of the story involve guilt and empathy, how the former, including in the form of watching others suffer, engenders the latter, and what that implies for the sincerity of either emotion.

But self-awareness, sadly, is not always self-interrogation; if it were, then This is the Summer of Love, the first anthology edition of PS’s Postscripts magazine, which at least so far as I’m concerned has more than its share of mildly metafictional horror tales, would be much more to my taste than it is. (The anthology becomes the latest victim of my ongoing skirmishes with genre horror quite inadvertently: I read it because it’s advertised as simply a “new writers” special — albeit with a flexible definition of “new” that translates to “people who may have published quite a few stories that we think you won’t have heard of”.) Into the category of “middling success”, for instance, falls RB Russell’s “Literary Remains”. The setup involves an older woman recalling an episode from her youth: she was in her early twenties, living on her own for the first time, in a band, and working in a second-hand bookshop to make ends meet. One of the shop’s customers, an elderly man, develops a creepy but seemingly harmless mild obsession with the narrator, leading him to donate various books of ghost stories — some rare editions, some pulp, all heavily annotated. The narrator finds her interest sparked by the annotations, and from there she develops an appreciation of the man’s own, little-known, fiction. Then the man dies, and becomes posthumously successful, and the narrator finds herself visiting his flat to help with an assessment of his book collection for resale. The voice throughout is unfussy and well suited to the denoument; the trouble is that the denoument delivers nothing unexpected. That is to say, creepiness ensues, of a kind that may be in the narrator’s head (having been sensitised by the man’s fiction) or may be real and which, if real, constitutes sexual abuse. Russell leaves enough unstated, and introduces enough doubt about his narrator’s perceptiveness and accuracy of recall, for the story to work passably well, but there’s no denying its predictability, and predictability (as a story like Joe Hill’s “Best New Horror” demonstrates) is itself a form of comfort. Although that said, arguably the most terrifying sentence in the story is the first, with its utter dreariness: ‘When I look back on my life in Eastbourne in the late 1980s, I find it amazing that I could ever have had enough time and energy to accomplish what I did’ (129).

There’s a writer at the centre of “The Family Face” by James Cooper, too, and here predictability has produced a story so snug in the grooves of genre that it’s barely there to criticize. Said writer is English, called Michael, and heading to the country for a week’s peace, quiet and writing; on his way he meets an odd and apparently itinerant family, one of whose members specialises in carving uncannily life-like dolls. Michael declines to take one, but on arriving at his remote retreat he finds himself haunted by a child carrying a half-finished doll. There is a wearying laziness to the tale — Michael’s first encounter with the boy is described as being ‘as though somewhere, just out of sight, the trace of someone’s nightmare was being inexplicably defined’ (91), rather than in a way that might actually evoke nightmarishness — and by the time Michael is thinking that ‘he knew implicitly that there was nothing remotely derivative about his own mounting disquiet’ (95) all you can do is roll your eyes.

Speaking, as we were earlier, of bad ways to introduce stories, here’s another: “I believe new writers are forced to be copyists by publishers who accept only work of a kind that has been successfully received”, says Clive Johnson. Whatever the truth of this assertion — and I’ll be charitable and accept that some attenuated version of it is true for at least some publishers at least some of the time — it smacks of defensivness for a writer, let alone a relatively new writer, to introduce his work this way. Unlike “Cell”, “Pieland’s Dream” doesn’t quite escape its introduction, either. It begins as a sort of club story, with one member of a writing group relating his dream to the others (and in the process renders the introduction doubly redundant by putting very similar sentiments into the mouths of its characters), and develops into a deconstruction of the desire for and impossibility of originality, as another member of the writing group begins to experience the dream, before they all perform in a play that recreates a key scene from the dream; the story gradually tightens its grip on them, ultimately killing one of the group. What’s good is Johnson’s willingness to be inventive; there’s a decent dialogue-heavy opening section that juggles its characters well, an almost dialogue-free section of some intensity, and sections towards the end rendered as a transcript. What doesn’t work so well is pacing; none of the sections feels quite the right length, and Johnson doesn’t quite manage to balance the different levels at which the story is operating. And there’s the sense that even if the form is original, acknowledging the familiarity of the base tale does not, here as in “Literary Remains” and “The Family Face”, translate into a successful iteration of it.

There are fewer writers, but not much more success, in the non-horror tales. Deborah Kalin’s “The Wages of Salt”, for example, seems to me a classic case of an interesting setting coupled to under-developed story. Alessia is a student in New Persia, an intriguing if sometimes baffling city-state on a salt desert. (One source of bafflement: why is salt “white gold”, the basis of New Persia’s economy, given its apparent abundance?) She is researching the nature of the “theriomorphs”, nicely realized half-man half-animal creatures that occupy the salt plains around the city; that research ultimately leads her, and us, to a new understanding of the therimorphs, and her. And sadly, that — plus a few rather perfunctory exchanges on ethics and pragmatism, and the abstract value of knowledge versus the immediate value of coin — is it. Similarly inessential is Neil Grimmett’s “A Hard Water”, a short, mimetic piece about fishing. The water of the title is a spot that appears to be idyllic and undiscovered, but in actuality is a hard water, which is to say one that refuses to give up its fish. The narrator, obsessesed with the place, is one of only two fishermen to stick it out over the season, hoping to land an enormous carp. There is a sort of rivalry with the other fisherman; there is the suggestion that his wife is using his absences to have an affair; there is a climactic storm, and a hint of the immanent fantastic. It is perfectly reasonable and unexceptional.

Livia Llwellyn’s “Horses” is the most fully realized sf piece, although it certainly carries a horror glaze: it is the story of the nuclear apocalypse and after as experienced by an American Missile Facilities Technician called Angela Kingston. Its ambitions are good, aiming for a mix of McCarthy nihilism and Russ anger, but the end result is too messy and melodramatic to match either. Llwellyn aspires to the cinematic, and some images, such as an emaciated man emerging from a dark tunnel “as if a swimmer is breaking the surface of the ocean”, are vivid; but too many others, such as nuclear explosions on the horizon described as “voluptuous jets of lightning-shot ziggurats” (22), are confused (can you even have a jet of ziggurats?). Emotional moments, too, tend to be overly dramatic, such as Kingston’s acceptance of radiation poisoning on the grounds that when it reaches her heart, it will be surprised to find said organ already gone; or the establishing assertion that “In the next twenty-four hours, she’ll take the pill, or a bullet. Which one it will be, she cannot say” (16). Which is a shame, because in many ways Kingston’s dysfunctionality — suicidal yet driven to survive — is narratively and psychologically promising, at least until Llewellyn stoops to soften her (slightly) with maternal love. Even the lack of a happy ending can’t stop that feeling like a bit of a betrayal. But it is better, at least, than Chris Bell’s “Shem-el-Nessim”, the title of which is also the name of a magically bewitching perfume, which may be linked to visions of a mysterious beautiful woman, and which includes sentences of this kind: “They lay together in the failing light of a late afternoon, the indescribably oriental fragrance of her skin buffering the room’s airlessness” (64). I’m not convinced a strong perfume in an airless room would work quite like that, but fine, it’s magic; and the deployment of “oriental” makes me cringe; but what really gets my goat is the addition of “indescribably”. Admittedly it is an easy word to misuse, but here it is misused in a way that makes everything else about the sentence worse. There is no irony: this is entirely straight-faced exoticisation for no original, or even unoriginal but strongly felt, reason.

Leaving “Cell” aside, the most intriguing stories are those which open and close the collection. Like so many of the pieces here, they reflect on storytelling; but they do so via cinema rather than prose, which seems to work better. Unsurprisingly, given that it both closes and lends its title to the anthology, Rio Youers’ “This is the Summer of Love” is also more explicitly than most of the pieces here about love — as an emotion, and as a story humans tell to each other. Nick Gevers’ overall introduction to the anthology singles Youers out as a “major discovery”; he apparently has a novella, a novel, and some more shorter fiction forthcoming from PS. “This is the Summer of Love” doesn’t, by itself, justify this investment, but it doesn’t suggest it’s a terrible mistake, either. It is assured and occasionally bold work: the story of Terri and Billy, two teenagers obsessed with classic film who fall in together for a summer. The perspective is primarily Terri’s. The story opens with an exchange of overheard, unattributed dialogue: Terri (as it turns out) asking Billy to take her away to California. Billy says no, because “he knows he can only be her hero for as long as she needs one” (158), which may raise eyebrows. Flashback to when they met: Terri miserable, beaten by her father, convinced that love exists only in movies, that it is “all sweet fiction” (159). Suddenly Billy is there, and Terri has fallen head over heels: “Everything was gray next to him” (159). His smile is so beautiful it is “celluloid”(161) — a particularly effective choice that, I think. He is Brando, Dean, Stewart rolled into one.

The most appealing thing about “This is the Summer of Love” is its willingness to be shamelessly intense and (unlike, say, “Horses”) to recognize the absurdity of that intensity. It is at times hyperreal, a tale of young love and domestic abuse told with the fevered vision of Hollywood. The highs are very high, the lows very low; and the highs often disguise the lows, like the make-up Terri applies to turn the ghostly image in her mirror into a starlet. A melancholy ambivalence can be discerned: Hollywood saves Terri, day to day, possesses her in a sense, while Billy saves and possesses her in another; and at the end she achieves a happy ending, but it is happy in large part because she wants to be possessed, just not by her father. Billy’s opening worry, in other words, seems in no danger of passing: she’ll always want a hero.

And in Norman Prentiss’ opening tale, “In the porches of my ears”, out of what at first seems to be blandly middle-class American narration — meet Steve, who is snobbish enough about cinema to disdain the usual blockbuster fare, but thinks arthouse means “subtitles or excessive nudity” — but becomes slightly more warty and convincing, something quite clever and moving emerges. Steve recounts a trip to the cinema with his wife Helen, in which a (deliberately genericised version of a) Working Title-esque contemporary British romantic comedy is spoilt by the couple sitting in front, one of whom is blind and the other of whom narrates the events on screen. Steve and Helen’s annoyance appears to be validated when the woman, seemingly cruelly, changes the ending, relaying a bitter interpretation of the closing scenes that causes her companion to break down in tears; yet when Steve approaches the man afterwards to explain the real ending, the thanks he gets is deeply sarcastic.

There is an obvious commentary here on writing and rewriting, and the idea that different people get different things from stories (something of which I’m never so conscious as when reading work marketed as horror); and it’s deepened by a second part to the story, which establishes certain parallels between the two couples, and is explicit about the idea — the horror — that there may be “awful, unnarrated tragedy” (10) beneath the surface of a tale. Much is left unsaid (in the satisfying, rather than maddeningly oblique, sense), and any fantastic component is (appropriately) left to the reader to infer. But what makes the story work particularly well as an opening tale is its dark spin on the overall title: certainly love has a summer, but by implication it therefore also, inevitably, has an autumn and winter. To resist this, the tale suggests, is a kind of solipsism, a desire to make a story of love ours, to own it and make it relevant to us, to close the aching gap between story and life without regard for the consequences. As an introduction, it might be saying: do not try to make the stories that follow fit your love. Let them be their own thing. I might reply: if only more of them had managed to achieve such independence, or aspired to.

BSFA nominee: “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment”

Or to give it its full title, “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account”, also now nominated for a Stoker Award. You know the drill by now — read (or listen), survey the opinions collected below, then give your own. First up, Nader Elhefnawy in The Fix:

M. Rickert’s “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account” is written from the point of view of a girl whose mother has “disappeared” in a theocratic future America reminiscent of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It is, however, not a simple redo of that earlier story, and if anything, this piece struck me as being creepier than Atwood’s book, partly because of the use of the perspective of a child who has never known any other world; and partly because of Rickert’s subtler worldbuilding (though admittedly, it also has the advantage of being more recent, enabling it to exploit more immediate sources of anxiety). While there certainly are politics here, Rickert succeeds in crafting a very personal (and devastating) tale.

Lois Tilton:

A dystopian vision of how it would be to live in such a country, with Taliban-style public executions in football stadiums. The narrator is a young girl whose mother has fled to avoid execution for an earlier abortion, and she wrestles with her conflicted feelings, missing her mother and hating her for the stigma her actions have inflicted on her family.

With the example of the Taliban before us, no one can really say anymore: This couldn’t happen. Yet it is up to the author to convince us that it could have actually happened, or at least to willingly suspend disbelief and enter into the mutual pact between author and reader in which we accept the scenario for the sake of the message the story is meant to deliver. The problem with such fiction, however, is that the Message can outweigh the story, and I think that in this case it has done so, going too close to the line between chilling and absurd.

Abigail Nussbaum:

More disappointing is M. Rickert’s “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account,” but then I expect a great deal from Rickert, who has a knack for combining present day events with SFnal speculation and a possibly unhealthy dollop of cynicism about human nature. She does all that here, imagining a world in which abortion has been made retroactively punishable by death, and in which women are rounded up by the hundreds and thousands to pay for abortions performed years or even decades ago. As the title indicates, the story is narrated by the daughter of one of these condemned women, who has fled rather than face her punishment, to her family’s everlasting shame. It’s an effective piece, as, indeed, how could it help being? Mass executions! Gross miscarriages of justice! Institutionalized misogyny! Young women brainwashed into a Handmaid’s Tale-esque attitude of seeing themselves as nothing but walking wombs! It is also, however, shamelessly manipulative and unsubtle, a piece aimed only at people who agree with its politics, and one which encourages them to sneer rather than think.

James Bloomer:

This story is a harrowing extrapolation what might happen if fundamentalist anti-abortion laws are pursued. It reminded me of The Handmaiden’s Tale or The Carhullan Army. It’s undoubtedly designed as a warning to US citizens and the right wing religious tendencies. The extrapolation is taken to a horrible future conclusion. It’s emotional and well written, but it’s hard to love a story that makes me feel like that. You should read it, but it isn’t fun.

Michael J DeLuca:

Mary Rickert, as far as I’m aware, is incapable of writing a less than phenomenal story. “Evidence of Love in a Case of Abandonment: One Daughter’s Personal Account” freaked me the hell out. A totalitarian future USA in which abortion is not only illegal, but punishable by death. Profoundly unsettling. Somebody should give this lady a Tiptree.

Russ Allberry:

This is one of the creepiest stories that I’ve ever read. It’s set in a nasty 1984-style dystopia built by fundamentalists around the punishment of anyone who has gotten an abortion. Both the effectiveness and the terrifying creepiness are hightened by a thoroughly brainwashed first-person narrator who believes every word of it. Rickert pulls no punches in portraying the anti-abortion horror show, complete with execution of women as mass spectacle. Like all dystopias, it’s an extrapolation of a position to extremes that probably would never occur, but I found it chillingly effective. I’m not sure I really wanted to read it, though. (6)

Martin Lewis:

Like ‘Exhalation’ it is a well executed take on an extremely unlikely and not very interesting idea. The only thing that bumps it up over Chiang and Egan is that contains characters who are recognisably human. Niall Harrison has a typically lengthy, articulate and wrong review. God knows how he managed to write for so long about a story that, as others have pointed out, is like a modern version ‘The Lottery’ by Shelley Jackson. That isn’t a good thing, by the way.

As Martin points out, I actually already wrote about this one at some length. Can I possibly have anything left to say?

The Goosle

One of the reasons I wanted to get my hands on the Ellen Datlow-edited Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy was Margo Lanagan’s “The Goosle” — not just because I usually admire Lanagan’s stories, but because the reactions to this story, as tracked on Lanagan’s blog, have been interesting. They have been generally enthusiastic (or enthusiastic but nervous about how Lanagan might react), and occasionally bizarre, but a number have had an undercurrent of uneasiness: Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, for instance, says that though he “appreciated the creativity and inventiveness on display,” he’s “not sure the viciousness created a disturbing experience rather than an off-putting one”; and in general the descriptions emphasize how dark the tale is.

And now Dave Truesdale has reviewed the anthology, as one of his “Off on a Tangent” columns, and attacked “The Goosle”. (It’s interesting that this column appears under the SF Site banner, rather than as an online column for F&SF, although it’s not the first of the columns to do so.) Before I go any further, in case you haven’t followed any of the links above, a brief review of the premise: the story is a sequel to a version of “Hansel and Gretel” in which Gretel (here Kirtle) didn’t escape, and Hansel was found wandering by a man called Grinnan. The two now travel together, with Grinnan regularly and sexually abusing Hansel (“goosle” is one of his names for the boy; in the original “silly goose” is what the witch says as she demonstrates her oven to Gretel), and as “The Goosle” opens they pay a return visit to the witch, here called the “mudwife” (one of Lanagan’s common linguistic tricks is to corrupt existing word; here we’re obviously meant to think “midwife”, and there is a suggestion that the mudwife may act in that capacity for some locals). Here’s a sample of Truesdale’s judgement:

Del Rey ought to get a long, loud, wakeup call… and quick. If the author, editor, and publisher can nuance this story, massage it, spin it to where the objectionable inclusion of child rape for shock value alone is acceptable, then there are absolutely no boundaries, for any reason, anywhere — and we can expect more of the same. This sets a precedent, if not challenged. And again, what audience were the editor and publisher expecting to hit here? Several stories seem written just for a younger crowd, so then what can be the reasoning behind also presenting a fairy tale retelling with repeated instances of child rape for shock value?

To sum up, his charges are: that the story is inappropriate given what he judges to be the likely audience for the anthology; that the abuse is included for “shock value” and crosses the bounds of decency, specifically in a scene where “young Hansel thinks he might even like what is being done to him”; and that it adds nothing to the story specifically or to “the canon of Hansel and Gretel”.

To take these points in order: Truesdale’s perception of the anthology as being marketed, at least in part, at young adult readers seems to rest entirely on the fact that several protagonists, including that of Lanagan’s story, are young adults. This strikes me as almost so daft as to not be worth engaging with: you’d think that the presence of a story as confrontational as Lanagan’s would be a fairly clear marker that young adults aren’t the target audience. But apparently not. There is the grain of a sensible point here, in that if the anthology can be mistaken for a young adult anthology then a reader might be confronted with material they’re not fully equipped to handle; but having read several of the other stories in the book, and looking at the way the book is presented, I think it’s unlikely anyone would actually make that mistake.

On “shock value”: here’s the scene that (I presume) Truesdale was thinking of with reference to Hansel enjoying being abused. As context, it occurs after arriving at the mudwife’s house; Grinnan and the mudwife have in fact kicked Hansel outdoors so that they can get busy.

I try dozing, but it’s not comfortable among the roots there, and there is still noise from the cottage — now it is Grinnan working himself up, calling her all the things he calls me, all the insults. You love it, he says, with such deep disgust. You filth, you filthy cunt. And she oh‘s below, not at all like me, but as if she really does love it. I lie quiet, thinking: Is it true, that she loves it? That I do? And if it’s true, how is it that Grinnan knows, but I don’t?

Earlier this week, Victoria Hoyle was debating where she draws the line in the sand with regard to the content of fiction. It’s a valid question, and it’s not unreasonable for Truesdale to note that this story crosses his line. The problem with his critique is that he never goes any deeper than assertion – his discussion of “The Goosle” is six paragraphs long and uses the phrase “shock value” six times, which leaves the residual impression that it is the simple fact of the subject matter, rather than how it is handled, that is giving Truesdale trouble.

But this sort of thing really happens, which makes it a valid subject for fiction, and for me the handling is good enough that the story does not cross my line. In the context of the rest of the story the depiction of abuse does not strike me as exploitative, or sensationalist, or cheap. To be honest, given the hollow pain evident in that last sentence — “how is it that Grinnan knows, but I don’t?” — even in that single paragraph I think there’s enough evidence to conclude that Lanagan is approaching her topic with some care, which is to say that it strikes me — as Jeffrey Ford puts it in the comments to a post by Datlow linking to the review — as part of a portrait of how damaging, confusing, and frightening abuse can be for a child. The entire story is filled with unsettling images and situations, from the very first glimpse of the mudwife’s house — it’s clear that it’s the house of bread and cake from the fairytale, but what Hansel sees is “the dreadful roof sealed with drippy white mud … you are frightened it will choke you, but you cannot stop eating” – and it’s the accumulative weight of disorder that gives the story its power. Because of its subject matter, the story reminded me somewhat of M. Rickert’s “Holiday“; with reference to that story Jonathan Strahan says, in his year’s best, that “the best fiction challenges us in some way. The frankly disturbing dark tale that follows … was one of the most challenging published this year”, and in a year’s time it’s not hard to imagine someone saying the same of “The Goosle”. Both stories are asking us to try to understand psychologically damaged individuals. It’s true that Lanagan is (often, though not always) more direct than Rickert: where Rickert is suggestive, Lanagan tells us how Grinnan gets Hansel drunk to make him an easier mark, how Hansel was cut and bleeding after the first time Grinnan raped him, how “The price of the journey … is being spiked in the arse”. Of course it is unsettling to read, we might say. It’s meant to be. But this economically confrontational style suits Lanagan’s purpose: it makes it impossible to ignore what has been done to Hansel, and impossible to ignore the issues it raises.

Which leaves the question of what the story adds to our understanding of the Hansel and Gretel ur-story. In some ways, I think this is the wrong question to ask. As Abigail Nussbaum said elsewhere earlier this week, a reasonable way to evaluate a piece of fiction is to ask whether it does something new, or does something well; and if there have been dark extrapolations of Hansel and Gretel before (though I, at least, have not read so many as to be bored by them) then Lanagan’s is done seriously and well, and that is enough to justify its existence. For example: in the original, the background calamity is famine, which resonates in obvious ways with the gingerbread house and the witch’s proclivities; in Lanagan’s story, the land is ravaged by plague, which resonates equally obviously with the moral depravity of the adult characters. In the original, there is a neat, happy ending; in “The Goosle”, although Hansel does eventually find his way home, to do so he has to witness the most “obvious and ongoing” act of evil he has ever encountered, and when he gets home, his family has been killed by the plague. The moral order that structures the most commonly-read version of “Hansel and Gretel” is entirely absent in “The Goosle” — as Truesdale notes, it is ultimately the mudwife, not Hansel, who kills Grinnan — but that absence is surely part of the story’s point, and that it may have been done before does not diminish its impact here. Indeed, Hansel ultimately avenges Grinnan: an act which is both just (for what has been done to Grinnan is in itself horrific) and disturbing (for we can’t be completely sure that Hansel is not to some tiny degree saddened by his abuser’s death). Hansel is alternately at the mercy of the world, and ignored by it, and “The Goosle” is a tragedy.

There is also one significant way in which the story doesn’t differ from the original, which is that in both cases the witch is basically evil. In the flashbacks we get to Hansel’s original captivity, it becomes apparent that her interest in the boy, like Grinnan’s, is in part sexual — she is still hungry to eat him, but instead of feeling his finger to determine whether he is ripe, she feels his penis. And in the moments before Hansel ultimately kills her, she is described in ugly terms: “She has her back to me, her bare dirty white back, her baggy arse and thighs. If she weren’t doing what she’s doing, that would be horror enough, how everything is wet and withered and hung with hair, how everything shakes”. It’s also something that makes “The Goosle” interesting as a Margo Lanagan story, a way of evaluating the work that Truesdale doesn’t even consider. (There is nothing in his review about Lanagan’s skill with description or imagery, which is as evident here as in most of her other work.) The depiction of the mudwife put me strongly in mind of the last Lanagan story I read, “She-Creatures”, which appeared in Eclipse One. If that story has a folk antecedent I didn’t recognise it — the story is of three night-workmen being attacked by the titular creatures. But as in “The Goosle”, women are figured as terrifying and horrible — although in ways that have to do with their appearance as sexual beings than with their age – and as in “The Goosle”, sex and hunger are inextricably linked.

I originally read “She-Creatures” as an exercise in the blackest of black humour: for the narrator and his macho companions, the most terrible monsters imaginable are women who want to have sex with them. In “The Goosle”, there is no doubt that the mudwife really is both terrible and monstrous; but considering the two stories in conjunction, it’s a little scary to see how easily caricatures of women can be figured as, well, scary. I don’t think it’s an accident that in both stories, our perceptions of the women are entirely filtered through male characters who clearly do not see the targets of their gaze as full human beings, either through prejudice or inexperience. And in the case of “The Goosle” — given the familiarly misogynist positioning of women in many of Grimm’s fairytales – it adds another layer to what is already a fearsomely memorable tale.

UPDATE: See also these.

The Happening

If I see one more review that lambasts an M. Night Shyamalan film for not having a twist, I’m going to scream. It happens every time they’re released: a certain proportion of reviewers are apparently so unable to evaluate a film on its own that they reinterpret Shyamalan’s effort through a filter of expectation that, inevitably, does it no favours. This is by no means to say that Shyamalan is some maligned genius: Lady in the Water, for instance, was a mess. But while The Happening is by no means perfect, it is an idiosyncratic, interesting experiment that succeeds more than it fails. It’s unsettling at points, and scary twice; expect a twist, though, and you’ll be disappointed.

What you get, as many reviews have noted, is a B-movie disaster by way of Alfred Hitchcock. The film lives up to both halves of that comparison in multiple ways. For the first half, there’s the basic premise behind the happening itself — which, if you haven’t seen a trailer, is that people suddenly start committing mass suicide for no apparent reason. Given that the first tentative explanations are proposed just as the characters are approaching a small town called Hokum, I think it’s fairly clear that we’re not meant to take it entirely seriously (if I did, I would have to conclude that it’s based on an understanding of plant biology that is either much deeper than my own or much, much worse; but this is a film in which all science is Science, with a capital S). Moreover, both the acting and the dialogue are heavily stylised — but in a broad monster movie way, rather than the low-key, heavily naturalistic way of Shyamalan’s earlier films, with lots of heavily telegraphed reaction shots, and clunky observations. And the couple at the heart of the film (Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel) are almost unnaturally wholesome, in a way that recalls caricatures of ’50s America. Wahlberg’s character seems lost and bewildered, while Deschanel’s secret shame, endearingly, is that she went out for dessert with another man. Both frequently make big eyes at the screen, and each other.

But Shyamalan must know he’s set himself a near-impossible task in his choice of story, because at first glance it requires him to make inanimate objects scary. (It actually requires him to make an invisible force scary, a much easier sell because it can be made visible through its effect on people, but there’s still an initial hurdle to jump.) Which is where the second half of my earlier comparison comes in, because to a large extent he gets away with it. The Happening has a lot more laughs than you’d expect, almost all of which come from character interaction, or from moments when characters acknowledge that what’s happening is simply bizarre; and then something horrible will happen. Which is to say that although the film acknowledges, in various ways, its hokeyness, Shyamalan follows its implications through with conviction, often playing on the tension between terror and laughter. It helps that he’s admirably callous about killing off supporting characters (a lot of whom are very deftly drawn; I particularly liked the jittery private who’s seen most of his base kill themselves), and it helps that he excels at set-pieces and disturbing images. People walking off a building, as seen from the street; or a shot of a gun being successively picked up and then dropped by people shooting themselves in the head; or a car that starts accelerating towards something off-screen, such that you only get a second to realise that the driver’s lost it and is heading for a tree; or a mass hanging. Sometimes he shows you something traditionally gruesome, but more often he manages to make you think he’s going to show you something gruesome, and then pulls away at the last second.

Moreover, there’s much less of a sense of hubris about this film than there was about Shyamalan’s recent efforts. There’s no architect-figure cameo, for instance — indeed, unless I blinked and missed it, no cameo at all. There’s an ecological message, but it’s not thumped home, largely because the most portentious dialogue is placed in the mouths of characters whose grasp on reality may be a bit more fragile than the average; the film is pacy, and over quicker than you expect, if sometimes shamelessly contrived in its plotting; and in general, it feels like a film that sets out to please its audience, rather than its director. It may or may not succeed in that — reviews suggest that I’m in a minority, although the audience I saw it with seemed to get into the spirit of things — but for its distinctively personal approach, I’m bound to admire it. Perhaps I can pay The Happening no higher compliment than this: I can’t wait to see what Nick Lowe makes of it.

Subterranean 7

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.