Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Nonfiction

Book Reviews: October 2021

Read This! Volume 18
New Horror Fiction You Should Know

Nothing lasts.

From Heraclitus who said, “The only constant in life is change,” to Octavia Butler’s, “The only lasting truth is Change,” time and again, we’re told that everything is transitory. Whether we like it or not, nothing can ever remain the same, not the good, nor the bad. The temporary nature of existence is at the heart of Buddhism.

Things change. People change. We can’t control that.

Buddha is purported to have said life is suffering, but really, he meant only when we don’t let go of our expectations, our wishes for what we want, instead of living with what really is. Being in the now means not dwelling on the events of a static unchangeable past or a fluid unpredictable future, but accepting the reality of any given moment and acting based on that. Eat what’s on your plate and not the meal you want instead. Enjoy it without expectation of having it again, or certitude you can avoid it. Remember that like or dislike of anything is only a point of view, not the truth of what anything is. Existence is neutral, we assign values to it. Let go of judgment, release regret for the past and false hopes for the future and you can find balance in the middle, the state of what Buddhism calls equanimity.

Taking that approach is all that’s gotten me through the last two years, and possibly the next. It’s been an unprecedented time for us. Any personal crises we already had in our lives were complicated by a global pandemic and all the economic, medical, and emotional stress that came with it. You either collapsed under the strain, overwhelmed, or changed, adapted, and found new ways to see the world and function to survive this ordeal intact in mind and body.

We still have a long road back to “normal,” with no end in sight, but it’s already been transformative for us all. Who knows who we’ll be when we reach the other side? How well we handle the voyage is what changes and defines us, just as the same is true in the traditional hero’s journey that shapes our favorite literary protagonists.

The progress of personal change is the basis of most myths, fairy tales, epic legends—any good stories. All detail how their protagonists change over time. Only the least imaginative sitcoms leave characters the same at the end of their tale as they were when they began. Any well-developed work is only of interest if we follow someone compelling while they discover who they are—their true nature, their purpose, their reason for being—over the course of the story.

The Germans have a word for it, of course, cited in Harris’ acknowledgments—Künstlerroman—a narrative about the maturation of an artist and their subsequent rejection of the ordinary world to live on their terms. The adventure can last for days, months, years, centuries, anywhere from a short story to a series of novels. Whatever their length, they’re appealing because they reflect us and our own issues, so we share in their struggles, see them as valid as ours. That’s what keeps us reading.

Not all who find themselves are nobly heroic.

Admittedly, neither am I, having delighted in recent Disney movie origins for two of their classic villainesses, Maleficent and Cruella, two characters who were among my favorites as a rebellious child. Both films follow parallel tracks—an innocent betrayed finds the strength to vindicate themself. Their nemesis is overcome in a critical confrontation, and by the end they’re finally fully realized. They’re left at the butterfly stage of the familiar character, younger, more vital, but still who we know.

Neither film explains how their newly sympathetic heroines later become the women who turned into a dragon to eat a prince, or designed a Dalmatian puppy coat. I’m not saying either of those goals contributed to my childhood adoration . . . They were just strong women and better role models for me than most Disney heroes. As far as I was concerned, Sleeping Beauty’s insipid prince deserved to be eaten, but both characters’ enduring popularity demonstrate that our enjoyment of the journey is greater than how we feel about where it ends.

This column follows two very different protagonists on their own vision quests as each comes into their own, two novellas that open doors to nightmarish new worlds that could easily lead to longer works about both.

Flowers for the Sea
Zin E. Rocklyn
Paperback / Ebook
ISBN: 9781250804037
Tor.com, October 19, 2021, 108 pages

In full disclosure, I know the author personally and have followed their work for several years now, not out of friendship, but appreciation. I know two of Rocklyn’s previous stories, “Summer Skin,” published in the Sycorax’s Daughters anthology, and “The Night Sun,” published by Tor.com. Both feature what seems to be a dominant theme in the three works I’ve seen so far: transmutation as a means of redemption for women in crisis.

It’s never an effortless deus ex machina that provides them with easy resolution. Rocklyn’s women share a belief that they’ve been wronged, rightfully or not, which prompts unexpected change as their means of vindication.

In the first story, change comes at a high cost to others, as a woman with a worsening parasitic skin condition replenishes herself annually by consuming women who remind her of the aunts who raised her. Told in first person, Rocklyn’s unnamed protagonist elicits our sympathy when we encounter her, but gradually comes apart physically and mentally until she’s revealed as a very particular kind of predator.

Avery, the heroine of the second story, is on her way out of a bad marriage to a physically and emotionally abusive man. To silence his objections to a divorce, she reluctantly agrees to a second chance country weekend where he makes it violently clear that he refuses to let her go. The weekend begins with blood when they hit the ripped and torn corpse of a deer on the drive up, and ends in more when she is liberated by a bout of lycanthropy.

Flowers for the Sea opens with another kind of woman in a crisis quite unlike the others, in a very different world than what Rocklyn has explored before. We meet Iraxi late in her pregnancy, at sea for 1,743 days aboard a ship bound for nowhere on a flooded world that could be a devastated future Earth or another. The Green Room they use to grow plants for food is failing, and the refugees are stalked and picked off the decks by Razorbacks, carnivorous flying beasts that rise at random from the sea. The survivors’ future is dwindling, their women barren. As the only one onboard to carry a pregnancy this far, Iraxi is the last hope for the survival of her fellow travelers, but still hated by them as a nim, an outsider of another race and culture.

Iraxi’s tone initially sounds bitter, angry, but is soon justified by her account of a life we enter in transition. Many aspects of her world resemble ours in the worst possible ways. Iraxi’s people, shunned for their success in working the ocean and their affinity for its life, were blamed for the misfortunes of lesser skilled neighbors who hated them. Accused of witchcraft, her family was lynched, with no consequence for their killers. After Iraxi lost everything, her enemy’s Prince, the same that denied justice for her family, offered the newly nineteen-year-old young woman his hand, not once, but thrice, rejected each time.

Before she could shame him with another refusal, her world burned. Whether by nature or the hand of the royal family is unclear and unimportant. The undefined catastrophe made the sea the population’s only salvation as the waters finally rose over the last of their lands, now ruined.

Iraxi’s survival onboard ship has depended on accommodating the desires of two men from among her enemies. One professes his love despite her rejection of him, the other is celebrated as the father of her child. Reviled for bearing her baby this long when all others aboard lost theirs, with everyone except her two lovers against her, Iraxi awaits a birth she’s sure is not as it seems. She keeps to herself visions of it triggering worldwide change, none of it to the benefit of her fellow passengers. By the story’s end, the horrific fulfillment of her dreams provides Iraxi with the astonishing answer to her own becoming, and more.

Rocklyn’s prose is tightly written, precise, yet poetic, pulling us in with the voice of their main character, as in her other work. Like the best dressmakers, a good writer’s skill is secondary to the story it tells, as a good designer takes backseat to the dress. Seamless invisible writing that doesn’t call attention to its mastery enhances its effect by not reminding us the story has been constructed, that we aren’t experiencing a reality, but artifice. Iraxi becomes an individual compelling enough to carry us with her from the kind of everyday nightmares we’ve come to expect, into unanticipated supernatural terrors that over-whelm the ordinary ones she faces. The transition is so smooth, we don’t realize how deeply we’ve been led into unknown waters until it’s far too late to escape.

Not that there’s always that desire . . . by the end of Flowers for the Sea, I was ready to follow Iraxi much farther down her road to see where it leads.

Master of Rods and Strings
Jason Marc Harris
Paperback / Ebook
ISBN: 9781952283154
Vernacular Books, July 2021, 92 pages

I must confess a weakness for stories of demonic dolls.

No boy with sisters hasn’t occasionally shuddered at the baleful glares of their sisters’ collections, sure they were out to get him in his sleep. It made all the cheesy horror movies I watched about possessed toys like Chucky, marionettes that move without strings, or chatty dummies who control ventriloquists resonate, because they brought things to life on screen that I secretly feared were true!

Most of these stories end up sticking plenty of tongue-in-cheek between the scares, like the Chucky series and Full Moon’s endless Puppet Master sequels. Others like Annabelle, The Boy, and one could argue, even Westworld, play it so straight they achieve levels of terror no human evil can match. There’s little more chilling than being menaced by a literally inhuman monster, from antique dolls to futuristic robots, a killer with no compassion, no remorse, no desire other than extermination. I know the movies best, but there are countless literary equivalents, and Master of Rods and Strings is a chilling new addition to that body of work.

Patrick Clermont and his wife Anne live quietly in the south of France with their teen daughter, Sonja, and her younger brother, Elias. Their hometown is an obscure little place west of Valence, Saint Siméon, named after the patron saint of puppets and puppeteers, which is weirdly true.

The time period is curiously vague. Elias, our young narrator, speaks in a formal style that might be considered period, but the novella could be set anywhere from the eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. Modern technology never comes up—no one makes phone calls, watches television, travels by plane or train—an omission that seems deliberate. The lack of specificity gives things an oddly timeless quality and lays the foundation for the occult twist the story takes, events framed in a mysterious space where anything is possible. Everyone acts out of hunger for power, magical more than monetary or political. No one in young Elias’ life has normal goals, but there’s little that is normal in his life.

More than anything, Elias wants to be a puppeteer like his sister who’s mastered her marionette fairy, Angelique, but his parents vigorously discourage his interest. His father teaches him the violin, his mother knits him a sweater to ward off the evil eye, and both do all they can to discourage him from following in his sister’s footsteps. When they allow her to go study with his Uncle Pavan, Elias fears he will never see his beloved sister again, confirmed when his parents announce that they’re moving to Marseilles, with no real explanation.

Children insist on doing anything they are told not to do, and the more Elias’ parents try to hide some hidden horror in their family, the more resolved he becomes to uncover it. Before they leave, Elias runs away to say goodbye to his sister at the prestigious puppetry school she attends. Mocked by his sister’s schoolmates when he can’t find her, he runs to his uncle’s mansion in search of Sonja.

Elias peers through a window to see his uncle in nothing but a robe, seated in front of the fireplace as he performs arcane rituals with his sister’s blood, assisted by the stringless Angelique, moving on its own.

Horrified, Elias confronts his parents who refuse to explain or go back with him to save her. Elias runs away from home, lives on the waterfront in Marseilles and changes his name to Luc. He makes a new puppet from a broken doll found in the trash, the name St. Pierre’s Asylum printed on its back, a place torn down long ago to make way for a prison. Luc names it Virgil and becomes a street performer, rises in fame over the next five years, until he’s ready for an inevitable standoff with his evil uncle.

The idea of puppets as magical vessels is introduced early in the story, with Elias’ childhood attempt to manipulate the family’s dead cat like a marionette with “catgut” strings from his father’s violin. Years later, his lover Fiona easily animates a dead mouse with electrified wires as a quick demonstration of how to do what he’d unsuccessfully attempted. She introduces him to the world of occult puppetry and blood alchemy, his uncle’s specialty.

Elias grows in understanding of the mysteries of his past as he masters the art he aspired to as a boy. Like Iraxi, his path takes him from being powerless to seizing supernatural forces beyond imagining. Learning how to manipulate people with his puppets’ mystical movements, “Luc” builds in ability toward an epic confrontation to prove himself.

Like Maleficent and Cruella, neither Elias nor Iraxi have the best of motives, but by the time they’re fully realized, I felt both really kind of deserved to kick some butt. It’s hard not to identify with their desires for justice. How they get there and what they finally do to get it is what makes each novella an enjoyable read.

Hopefully I’ll be equally satisfied with the climax of our current journey to a new normal, whatever it turns out to be. In the meantime, reading these two novellas to their resolutions offers us some hope that it’s possible to triumph over extreme adversity. Wherever we land, whenever we land, rest assured neither you nor I will be the same person who was flung into an uncertain future two years ago.

Whether we consider that good or bad is entirely up to us.

Terence Taylor

Terence Taylor (terencetaylor.com) is an award-winning children’s television writer whose work has appeared on PBS, Nickelodeon, and Disney, among many others. After years of comforting tiny tots with TV, he turned to scaring their parents. His first published short story, “Plaything”, appeared in Dark Dreams, the first horror/suspense anthology of African-American authors. He was included in the next two volumes, and his short stories and non-fiction have appeared in Lightspeed and Fantastic Stories of the Imagination. Terence is also author of the first two novels of his Vampire Testaments trilogy, Bite Marks and Blood Pressure. He is currently writing the conclusion, Past Life. Follow him on Twitter @vamptestaments.