Steve Fahnestalk, Amazing Stories
Greg Hullender and Eric Wong, Rocket Stack Rank
John D. Loyd, There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
Patrick Mahon, SF Crowsnest
John Siebelink, Amazing Stories
Adrian Simmons, Black Gate
Victoria Silverwolf, Tangent Online
Sam Tomaino, SF Revu
Editor, C. C. Finlay
In a Wide Sky, Hidden • short story by William Ledbetter ∗∗∗
The Masochist’s Assistant • novelette by Auston Habershaw ∗∗∗
The Bride in Sea-Green Velvet • novelette by Robin Furth ∗∗∗+
There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House • novella by David Erik Nelson ∗∗∗∗
A Dog’s Story • short story by Gardner Dozois ∗∗∗
I Am Not I • novelette by G. V. Anderson ∗∗∗∗
Afiya’s Song • novelette by Justin C. Key ∗∗∗
An Obstruction to Delivery • short story by Sean Adams ∗∗∗+
An Unearned Death • short story by Marissa Lingen ∗∗
There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House • cover by Nicholas Grunas
Books to Look For • by Charles de Lint
Musing on Books • by Michelle West
Cartoon • by Nick Downes
With the Best of Intentions • science essay by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty
Ghoulies, Ghosties, Beasties • film review by David J. Skal
Northwest Cruise • poem by Sophie M. White
Curiosities • review by Paul Di Filippo
The fiction leads off with In a Wide Sky, Hidden by William Ledbetter, which has the narrator arriving (via quantum transportation) on an alien planet where he is met by an eight foot high humanoid robot. He is on a quest to find his sister, a planetary artist who disappeared decades ago (there is life extension in this future as the transportation device can alter the traveller’s reconstructed body to a younger biological age). His last contact with his sister ended with her vanishing:
I spent the rest of that night getting drunk and slept in the next morning. When I woke up, I found a handwritten note waiting for me.
COME FIND ME. — Regina
I assumed she meant to find her for breakfast or lunch, but as I learned from the local news, she had taken advantage of the media focus on her show and staged a dramatic disappearance. Her statement, sent to the local press and soon spread across all settled space, was simple yet mysterious and teasing.
“I have found a world of my own. It will be my masterpiece.” p. 14-15
He has been searching for her ever since.
As he recovers from the journey, the robot tells him that there is no natural life on the planet but that the probes have found something artificial. As the man and the robot investigate this there are a couple of scenes spliced in that limn the relationship between the narrator and his sister, including a disagreement they have about him giving up his ambition to be a planetary explorer for a young woman he is in love with at home.
Eventually (spoiler) they find his sister’s body and deduce she died forty years ago. She let herself to age naturally and die. He must now decide whether to continue exploring.
This is well enough done, but I wasn’t really convinced about the sister deliberately stranding herself on the planet just to motivate her brother to become an explorer.
The Masochist’s Assistant by Auston Habershaw, according to the introduction, takes place in the same world as his fantasy trilogy, The Saga of the Redeemed,1 although it is complete in itself.
Georges is the famulus (servant/assistant) to Magus Hugarth, and has unusual duties:
This particular morning, though, Georges found his master on his back and stabbed him in the front almost without thinking about it. As his master’s blood soaked through the linen, his mind was on the salon to be held in the Silver Room of Madame Grousand’s château that evening. He had responded to the invitation in the positive without his master’s knowledge, hoping that his master wouldn’t want to go and send him in his stead when Georges pointed out that the event was tonight. This happened often enough to be reasonably certain, despite his master priding himself on his unpredictability.
Georges pulled his ruffled sleeve up and away from the bloody linen with his free hand and considered what he ought to wear to the salon while gazing out the open window and over the rooftops of the village and into the vastness of the deep summer-blue sky. He indulged in a daydream — himself, the center of attention at the salon in his periwinkle doublet, telling riddles that amused an array of highborn ladies. In time, though, he heard his master cough roughly and Georges was pushed away by one meaty hand.
Master Hugarth sat up in bed, blinking in the morning light. His voice was hoarse. “How long?” p. 23
This passage illuminates two of story’s threads: Magus Hugarth’s quest to reduce the amount of time he remains dead after being killed; and Georges’ desire to advance in the etiquette bound society in which he lives. Unfortunately, Hugarth’s disreputable behaviour (i.e. running naked in the street, saying exactly what he thinks in company, etc.) poisons Georges’ chances at advancement.
The last part draws all these elements together in a satisfying way.
The Bride in Sea-Green Velvet by Robin Furth begins with Sir Henry buying a woman’s skull from a member of thieves’ guild, then taking it to a man called DeMains. The latter will build up a face on the skull from clay and pins. While they are discussing the project, DeMains questions Sir Henry about his plans for his forty-ninth birthday—seven by seven, so a significant occasion—and the sacrifice he must make to the sea goddess. Using a local girl for this is problematical, so De Mains asks if Sir Henry intends to use the skull. Sir Henry is reluctant, but realises he may have no choice.
Later Sir Henry retires to the catacombs under his chateau. There he selects a favourite skull from his collection and takes it deeper into the caves to see the Abbot, who is long dead and appears as a shadow. Sir Henry asks him for his treatise on turning clay into flesh.
The highlight of the piece (spoiler) is when Sir Henry goes down to the shoreline on the evening of his birthday and starts creating a body for the restored head, with a view to using it as a sacrifice:
With the deference of a courting suitor, Sir Henry laid the head of his lady upon the sand. Then he set about building her a body.
Her spine — from neck to curved pelvis — he took from the remains of the amorous mermaid. The bones of legs and feet, arms and hands, lovely fingers and precious toes he built from driftwood and coral. Her lungs were sea sponges and her tendons long strands of kelp wrapped around the muscular innards scooped from great scallop shells. Womb and bladder were sea cucumbers, her ovaries starfish, and her liver a giant sea leach. Her gallbladder was a yellow snail and her innards a writhing sea worm pulled from below the sand, its circular mouthful of teeth snapping. For breasts, two more lovely rounded sea sponges, and for nipples, tiny pearls.
Almost finished, he sat back on his heels and gazed upon the body of his beloved, and at her head, which rested several feet away. She looked like a beautiful saint — beheaded and flayed — though the gods this lady served were no Christian ones. Sir Henry sighed. The only missing organ was a heart. p. 56-57
This process becomes weirder and more visceral.
For the first half or so of the story I found this one a bit hard to get into, but the gripping resurrection scene provides a strong second half.
It was only after reading There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House by David Erik Nelson that I realised I hadn’t recognised him as the author of Where There Is Nothing, There Is God, a ‘New Guys’ time-travel novella from last December’s Asimov’s SF. That one was a lively and entertaining story which I enjoyed, and I liked this one even more.
The obvious starting point for this one is Robert A. Heinlein’s novelette “—And He Built a Crooked House—” (Astounding, February 1941), the well-known story whose architect protagonist inadvertently builds a house that collapses during an earthquake to become a tesseract. (A tesseract is to a cube as a cube is to a square. Long story short, this leads to a lot of dimensional weirdness inside the house. From Wikipedia2: “—the stairs seem to form a closed loop. There appears to be no way to get back out, as all the doors and windows lead directly into other rooms. At one point, they look down a hallway and are shocked to see their own backs.”)
Nelson takes this basic idea and places his tesseract house in a grittily described Detroit, where the building is about to be cleared, repaired and flipped by a couple of house renovators called Glenn and Lennie. Glenn, who is the narrator, realises there is something wrong with the house while he and his assistant do their survey (during which they are hassled by two cops). The property is in a run-down area but it has an immaculate exterior, and there are many intact period features inside.
The pair discovers the building’s dimensional weirdness when Glenn manages to pick the lock of the door and opens it:
This joint was spotless. And scentless: no mildew or rot or garbage, but also none of the good smells of old wood oil or antique books or mellow, ancient fireplace smoke. No nothing.
I started through the doorway, then stumbled, even though the porch and entryway were flush, without so much as a thick threshold. I heard a door clap shut behind me and found myself on my knees in the backyard, nothing before me but dirt, rubble, and the distant Detroit skyline against a flat, gray sky. Somewhere Lennie was shouting his head off. I turned around and was looking at the back of the crooked house. There was a shallow screen porch with a wood-framed door tacked onto its back. Three wooden steps led down to the yard, where I crouched.
“I’m back here, Lennie!” I hollered, finding my feet. “Come join me!”
I heard Lennie’s workboots crunching through the rubble, and a second later he popped around the corner.
“Glenn!” he shouted. “How’d you get back here?” p. 92-93
Further confusion follows when entering the back door results in Glenn exiting an upstairs window. When he climbs back into the attic room, he ends up on the front porch. They then contact Fleischermann, the owner, and show him what they have found. He is less than impressed:
“Well, fuck.” He sighed. “This went from dandy to dog shit in record time.”
“You had no clue this place was, um…,” I faltered, then came up with, “Special?”
Fleischermann turned and looked at me like I was an idiot. His face worked oddly as he processed through a string of emotions — wonder, annoyance, offense, shame, then something akin to grief — before settling on anger. Then he unloaded with both barrels.
“Yeah, Glenn, fucking shockingly, I had no fucking notion that I was paying cash money for the only red-stone French Revival in Detroit that’s also a fucking Möbius strip!” His voice quickly got shrill. “The buyer’s always the last to fucking know, right?”
“No, no,” I said, hands raised placatingly, “I just meant the condition, that it’s so well preserved, fully furnished!”
“Of course it’s fucking fully furnished, Glenn!” Fleischermann shouted. “No one can get in to loot the fucker!” Lennie had drawn back to Fleischermann’s Jag, hands covering his ears. “I’ve bought a beautiful house you can’t go into on a piece of land that’s less than worthless embedded in a fucking necrotic abscess on the diabetic ass of the most notoriously moribund city in North fucking America, Glenn! We can’t even fucking strip it for the copper and doorknobs!” p. 96-97
Up until this point the story is essentially a contemporary version of Heinlein’s, but it then gets a lot stranger. Glenn gets a set of keys for the house from Fleischermann with orders to lock it up. The story then moves on a week or two: Glenn is at a bar and picks up a woman called Anja with a promise to show her something special. They go to the house where Glenn expects to show her the front door/back door trick, but he finds that when he unlocks the house using the keys they manage to enter the house normally.
They look around, and find books inside the house with strange titles: A Brief History of Time by Warren G. Harding, A Theory of Colour and Palettes: My Struggle by Adolf Hitler. There are also unusual views out of the windows which do not match the neighbourhood. And then (spoiler):
There was a pair of sneakers on the mantel, a pair of like-new LeBron 11s — the limited edition “What the LeBron?” ones, with their crazy blacklight-blender-puke rainbow scribbles and splashes. Ugly, ugly fucking shoes. Still, those shoes are coveted by teens and corner boys alike. They wait in line for hours and then pay hundreds for them, or get them from resellers online for a grand. But there was something off about these shoes: The left sneaker had a weird brown tiger-stripe motif cutting through the hot pinks and glowing teals. I took a couple steps closer and wasn’t shocked to see that the brown was old blood. There appeared to be a healthy portion of a foot still in that left shoe. The sock was neatly snipped off and singed, showing a little slice of dark skin. The exposed cut was blackened like a steak fresh off the grill. The neat end of the bone was glistening ivory sliced with laser precision. I sniffed the air without thinking, but it didn’t smell like a cookout. I was grateful for that.
“I think we better go,” I said. p. 106
The rest of the tale involves (more spoilers) the house being sold another developer, the two cops reappearing and exhibiting a particular interest in the house, and, of course, the malevolent alien entity inside which is responsible for the severed human foot. I’ve probably over-quoted from this story already, but I can’t help but add the great description Nelson provides of the creature:
There was a thing in the room, and I couldn’t figure out what the hell it was. At first I took it to be a shadow, but that wasn’t right. Shadows are flat, cast onto a surface, and this darkness hung in the air. And it was grappling with the man. The thing moved in jagged fits, like a time-lapse film of germination, or video that’s dropping frames. It elongated and contracted, bulging like motor oil floating in zero G, extending and withdrawing appendages of some sort — arms, maybe? Or roots? Or tentacles? One of these extrusions was a broad, flat wing. Another was spiky, infinitely, infinitesimally branching like a fractal. p. 119
Part time-lapse photograph, part tentacle, part wing, and part fractal—isn’t that a great image?
This is a very entertaining and readable story, and what makes it even better is the sheer amount of incidental detail that Nelson includes. At the end, just when I thought it was coming off the boil a little, there is a neat little twist that pulls it back up again, as well as allowing for sequels. One for the ‘Best of the Year’ collections.
A Dog’s Story by Gardner Dozois is about a dog who finds a woman lying dead in an alleyway, raped and murdered. So the dog goes to see a cat called Talking Pete, and they discuss what is to be done.
Talking Pete was silent for an even longer time, and then, just as Blackie was wondering if he’d fallen asleep with his eye open, he made a sound as close to a sigh as a cat could make, and said, “All right.” And cat-sighed again. And a messenger was sent to the basement of an abandoned warehouse near the railroad tracks where the Rat-King dwelled, dozens of rats tied tail to tail to tail.
After a while, the rats arrived in a rustling tide, and were given their instructions.
Rats go everywhere, of course, and see everything, so it wasn’t long before one was found who had seen the killer leave the alley and seen where he went, or at least followed him long enough in the right direction that Blackie was able to go to that particular corner and pick up the killer’s scent even with his aging nose. p. 145
This an is unusual and original piece that would shine more brightly if it wasn’t stuck between the very good Nelson and Anderson stories.
I Am Not I is by G. V. Anderson, who won a 2017 World Fantasy Award for her short story Das Steingeschöpf (Strange Horizons, 12 December 2016), and I think I can see why from this story. The narrator of this piece, Miss Strohm-Waxxog, is the daughter of a high-society Varian, and is a genetic throwback, or sap—human as they were once known. She has had surgery to change her appearance so she can pass as Varian, and hopes it will fool Madame Qlym, who is interviewing her for a job at her Emporium:
“You must be Miss Strohm-Waxxog! Oh, let me look at you!” and before I could protest she was inches away, jerking my chin this way and that to admire the glitter of her lamps in my six eyes, twirling me round to look, to pat — I flinched. My wings, stale as a new butterfly’s, rustled against my clothes as I moved.
“Ah,” she said, withdrawing her hands. “No true flight? It happens, it happens. What a pity. And your poor eye.…”
I knew I looked unspectacular. When I’d telephoned to arrange this interview I’d given her my real surname — a reckless move, but I needed her to employ me; few would turn away a member of the city’s most powerful family. She’d probably spent all morning imagining what beauteous manner of mutation would be walking through her door later. And here I was, with sore, brittle wings and a gammy eye.
“It’s the Strohm gene,” I gambled. “Infections in the third pair are common.” I needn’t have worried. She was so blinded by reverence for my family that she swallowed this without question. p. 148
Madame Qylm is an acristologist, and her Emporium conducts a very specific trade:
I eased open the door to the emporium and slipped inside.
There was only one aisle, wide enough to spread out my arms and brush the shelves with my fingertips — not that I wanted to get too close. The shelves creaked under the weight of thousands of dusty jars containing hands tinted amber by formaldehyde; eyeballs trailing optic kelp; and butter bean fœtuses that watched me with milky, unformed eyes. Sap parts, all of them. Collected and sold for the pleasure of Varians. p. 147
Strohm-Waxxog gets the job, and so begins her struggle to get enough money to pay for the surgical repair of her implanted eyes and wings.
In due course she meets the source of Madame Qylm’s sap specimens, the honey man:
He was more hive than flesh. He wore a loose shirt and pressed trousers, braces slung uselessly about his hips; and every available patch of skin was riddled with deep, black holes. Holes that went nowhere at all.
They obscured his face, his mouth; he had no hair, just tunnels boring into his head. As Madame ushered him through for refreshment, a bee emerged from the depths of a neck-hole and perched in the opening to watch me. p. 153
The honey man soon realises what Strohm-Waxxog really is and, given her society connections, what she would be worth as a specimen. The rest of the story details their conspiracy to cheat Madame Qylm out of her business.
This is an original work, and one which creates a strange but entirely convincing world. The ending allows for sequels, and I hope we will see them. Another one for the ‘Best of the Year’ anthologies.
Afiya’s Song by Justin C. Key is a long novelette set on a slave plantation in 1821, and is mostly concerned with the dreadful treatment of the inhabitants. The two aspects that set this apart from a straight historical story are that it takes place in a parallel world where there was a slave rebellion, and the main character—the person who sets the rebellion in motion—has a magical song that has various properties, including the ability to heal.
Later on in the story she teaches one of the male slaves the song with the hope that he will be able to use it in a similar way, but that doesn’t happen. Nonetheless, the song seems to spread throughout the slave community as an anthem-cum-vision.
Although this is worthy and well enough done there are a couple of problems with it, and those are that both the parallel world and magical song aspects are not entirely convincing. The parallel world rebellion is presented as a given and there is little explanation of how this happened. As for the magical song, I couldn’t quite see the point of this as nothing much ultimately seems to come of it that wouldn’t be provided by a word of mouth rebellion. If you have seen the film Twelve Years a Slave, I don’t think you will get anything more out of this piece. Personally, I would have been more interested in a story that was about a parallel world slave rebellion and how it happened—with a view to illuminating why that wasn’t the case in this world.
An Obstruction to Delivery by Sean Adams is another original piece, a loopy and meandering story about a town where postal workers use underground tunnels to deliver the mail because of the behaviour of one of their operatives, Peter Ponducci:
Peter was known for a variety of troublemaking activities, such as:
• carrying with him at all times a small cloth dampened with sedative to be used on dogs he deemed a danger;
• climbing atop the statue of the city’s founder in the central park, sitting upon its stone shoulders, and delivering sermons on the importance of “absolute adherence to the postal code, with observance of both the written and unwritten mandates dispensed therein”;
• and enforcing mailbox cleanliness by removing all junk mail left for more than a day and setting fire to it on the recipient’s lawn, just long enough to ensure an appropriate area of charred grass remained to serve as a warning. p. 224-225
Peter goes missing, and then piles of bones start appearing in the tunnels . . . .
This synopsis doesn’t even scratch the surface of this quirky, offbeat, multifaceted and very original tale. That latter comment notwithstanding, I was vaguely reminded of Richard Brautigan’s The Hawkline Monster. If you liked that, you’ll love this. Another one for the ‘Best of the Year’ collections. Oh, and a nice editorial touch to follow this story with F&SF’s moving notice:
An Unearned Death by Marissa Lingen is a tale about a woman who is a Messenger for the Gods. She goes from village to village with her magic cloak telling the dying which god, if any, will take their souls. If a god accepts their soul their bodies go to the cemetery—otherwise they go to the bone yard, and what would seem to be a living death. . . . When the Messenger comes upon a grandmother who appears destined for the bone yard she attempts to intercede with one of the Gods, and summons Lora the Just.
The idea of the Messenger and her cloak is a good one, but this story didn’t really grab me and I thought it the weakest piece in the issue.
I rather liked the cover, There Was a Crooked Man, He Flipped a Crooked House by Nicholas Grunas3, surprising perhaps given that it is just a picture of a house with a police car in front.4 I’d like to see the original as the cover blots out the front of the car with a barcode. I also wondered if the cover designer had overly cropped the left and right hand sides of the work.
Books to Look For by Charles de Lint covers a number of writers unknown to me (P. L. Winn, Nathan Van Coops, Patricia Briggs, James E. Coplin), and nothing came up when I searched SFE so I may not be the only one. That said, the Coplin book, Creaking Staircases, sounded interesting, and the Kindle edition was cheap enough to make it an impulse buy for me. Musing on Books by Michelle West has one name I recognise, Peter S. Beagle.
There is a Cartoon by Nick Downes, which I didn’t get the point of.
With the Best of Intentions by Pat Murphy and Paul Doherty is a science article on honey– and bumblebee decline. This one didn’t grab me like their articles normally do.
Ghoulies, Ghosties, Beasties by David J. Skal is a positive review of The Beauty and the Beast remake, a film that would have otherwise slid under my radar. (It is Sky TV’s Xmas Day movie, so I’ll probably have a look.)
Northwest Cruise by Sophie M. White is a poem about a future when the North-West passage is open, and the view future travellers have of the past.
Coming Attractions trails next month’s anniversary issue with, drum-roll, Samuel R. Delaney’s first story for the magazine in four decades (the last was Prismatica, F&SF, October 1977—even though I can’t remember reading David Erik Nelson’s novella last December, I managed to dredge this one up from memory ).
Curiosities by Paul Di Filippo considers a reasonably modern novel (1972), A Report From Group 17 by Robert C. O’Brien.
This is perhaps the strongest issue that editor C. C. Finlay has put together so far, and one of the best I’ve read since I started this blog. If he does not make the Hugo finals next year then there is no justice.
- Auston Habershaw at ISFDB.
- “—And He Built a Crooked House—” at Wikipedia.
- It looks like Nicholas Grunas is a mainstream artist. A number of his works can be seen at this site. If David Erik Nelson has any sense he’ll buy this cover painting to go with next year’s Hugo 🙂
- Another F&SF cover with a house (and one which I also liked) is Ron Walotsky’s, which illustrates Fritz Leiber’s serial, The Pale Brown Thing, from January 1977: