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the genre's premiere review magazine for short SF & Fantasy since 1993

Fantasy & Science Fiction, January 2004

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"Nimitseahpah" by Nancy Etchemendy
"Confessional" by Sheila Finch
"Welcome to Justice 2.0" by George Tucker
"The Growlimb" by Michael Shea
"The Seal Hunter" by Charles Coleman Finlay
"Heart's Desire" by Garth Nix
"Serostatus" by John Peyton Cooke

ImageAs I was reading this month's issue of F&SF, I discovered a theme running through the seven stories contained therein: be careful of what you do and who you do it to -- because there will be definitely be consequences (usually of the most unpleasant kind).

Three of the seven stories fall under the general category of "horror." My writerly colleagues tell me that I have some issues interpreting and/or understanding horror and its various progeny, so just to be on the safe side, I did some research to see if I was as far off the mark as they sometimes thought I was.

What makes a horror story a horror story is as much about how one feels when one is reading the story, as the content; so I'm fairly certain that I'm on the right track when some stories for me don't quite cut it as "horror" but may fall into one of its sub-genres. This is why I felt "Nimitseahpah" by Nancy Etchemendy fell more into the category of a supernatural or "weird" story, while later on, "Growlimb," by Michael Shea, I thought was closer to what a true horror story might be. The last story, "Serostatus" by John Peyton Cooke, classified by the PTB as a dark fantasy, did have me wondering how one sorts out the degree of variance.

"Nimitseahpah" is set in a mining town of Pactolus in Nevada, which Etchemendy has written about before. The year is 1905, and Kezzie has just lost her third baby. Times are hard here in Pactolus, partly because of a terrible mining disaster that took the lives of 150 men some years before. Kezzie is asked to become the town's schoolteacher for the few children still around, among them one who is the town outcast, one a sensitive dreamer, and a trio of bullies bent on tormenting the dreamer, with predictable, though not entirely desirable consequences.

The supernatural presence in this story we meet early on when Kezzie's husband Jessie takes her on a picnic to the very mine where the disaster took place. While there are hints that there is something unnatural that caused the men's demise in the mine, that is not the entity with which we need be concerned. It is the "Nimitseahpah" of the title that reaches out and touches the characters here.

Some of the difficulties I had accessing the heart of the story stemmed from the distant voice and contemporary and almost reportorial style of the narrator. I never felt I was actually "in" the story along with the protagonist. It didn't help that my willing suspension of disbelief was strangled from the outset as I could not, for the life of me, stop myself from asking why a husband would take his grieving wife to the site of a mining disaster -- on a picnic -- and the wife fail to make even a single comment about the destination (the scene did strike me as merely a means to introduce the entity and of showing its power through Kezzie's reaction to it). I felt certain the husband was going to be involved in something terrible, eventually; but he disappears after that, not because of any supernatural intervention, but because he was no longer necessary to the story. With that question (among others) looming in my mind, the rest of the story didn't seem to make much sense, either.

"Nimitseahpah" did not achieve the emotional resonance in me that I look for in such stories, partly due, I think, to Etchemendy's prose style and my willingness to engage being at odds with one another.

Next is a speculative fiction story by Sheila Finch, "Confessional". The story takes place in a near future after a war where the losers, the Muslim World, are striving to integrate themselves into the society of a victorious Western secular culture. Joe O'Connor, son of a member of the IRA and a priest with a few stains on his vocation (who, nevertheless, has political ambitions within the Church), is called to meet with his former college roommate, Ahmad, son of a minor Saudi prince, whom he has not seen for some time.

Ahmad has a plan, and he has chosen his victim -- his "confessor" -- well. He reveals his plan to Father Joe, who then has to face a canonical crisis and a crisis of conscience similar to one he had suffered before. There, canon law had necessarily triumphed over conscience, with terrible consequences. Questions about the soul, who has one and who doesn't, also arise from Ahmad's plan, dragging Father Joe even more deeply into a spiritual and Church-political funk.

Finch handles the crisis well, and you are kept guessing about Ahmad's plans and Father Joe's course of action all the way to the end. The worrying thing about near future spec fic, though, is how quickly a too-specific reference might be nullified by current events. However, while I liked this story because of the main character's dilemmas, personal, societal and spiritual, the world in which this story takes place is only sketchily drawn, and we never get a sense what impact Ahmad's plans and any action Father Joe might take will make on it.

"Welcome to Justice 2.0" by George Tucker is another fun short-short, about justice being dispensed via software developed by a certain corporate entity we are all too well acquainted with (ahem). . . 'nuff said. I wonder when the next upgrade will be coming, and what bugs there will be in that. . . .

Ah. Now we come to "The Growlimb" by Michael Shea. This does qualify as a horror story on the most basic level, insofar as it has both "the recognition of a threat to one's body and/or culture and/or world" and "a sense that there is something inherently monstrous and wrong in the invasive presence." (Ref: Encyclopedia of Fantasy, pg. 478.).

It does have both, in spades. However, once again, I was partly disengaged from the story right at the very beginning, by being confused about who the protagonist actually was. The story has several viewpoint characters, too many, in my opinion, even for a novelette. The main POV character -- Carl Larken -- is introduced into the story as a subordinate character by another character, Marjorie, who seems only to act as a kind of Greek chorus when the story is in her point of view, to reinforce the "wrongness" of Carl (in case we don't get it when we're in his point of view). What further disengaged me was an unnecessary sidestep into the realm of speculative fiction right in the first paragraph which had nothing to do with the story (as it turned out). I suppose it might have been included as misdirection, but given the content and direction of the story, this detail was superfluous.

There was enough in the rest of the story to keep me content, though. Carl Larken is a thoroughly unpleasant character with a tenuous grip on reality that snaps almost as soon as we meet him. He is completely unsympathetic; but you can't help reading on to see what new bit of nastiness he perpetrates on nature as we know it as he stumbles toward his ultimate destiny with the invading Other. When we are in his point of view, we are treated to what the inside of a completely deranged mind looks like, and it ain't pretty, folks. I had enough visceral moments to leave the table satisfied I had read an honest-to-goodness horror story.

Caveat: this story is best read on an empty stomach. Enjoy.

"The Seal Hunter" conjures up visions of Inuit surviving in the Frozen North, and there is a parallel to that kind of marginal existence in this story. However, Charles Coleman Finlay takes us not to a place we know on this earth, but to a place we know well in science fiction -- the frontier of space.

Broadnax is a "rocker", a miner working on the one of the moons of Jupiter. Sue-sheila Andy is an equipment operator working with him. They are two of over 700 people in this mining colony who appear to have been abandoned by their supply ships, and who are facing the prospect of marginal conditions until the next supply ship turns up (if it ever does). Broadnax (who is married but not to Sue-sheila) and Sue-sheila go off together on a trash run, with Broadnax having several ulterior motives, among them, "seal hunting".

Now, then: I look forward to this sort of story, usually, but I had problems with this one. Finlay seemed to have crammed every concept of Ye Olde Fashioned SF Story into this tale with the result that none of the concepts appeared to be germane to the story. Mining colony possibly abandoned by supply ships: check. Equipment breakages, superstitions surrounding unexplained death of worker and said equipment breakages: check. Indigenous alien creatures on this moon and why they are hunted: check. Shared memories via some (in this case unnamed) technological doo-dad: check. Older experienced man with mouthy younger female passenger on a dangerous mission: check. Several other sfnal concepts familiar to readers of Ye Olde Fashioned SF Story: check; check; check.

I couldn't make up my mind if Finlay was funnin' me with a pastiche of what Ye Olde Fashioned SF Story used to be (and is occasionally longed for by some), or if this was a case of not focusing on what the protagonist wanted the most and what was preventing him from getting it. You'll have to decide. This one had me stumped.

"Heart's Desire" by Garth Nix is this issue's only fantasy offering. Merlin's apprentice, Nimue, is facing the final step she must take to acquire the full power of the magic she has studied with Merlin for so long. Here, Nimue is painted a little more sympathetically than in the books by Mary Stewart about Merlin (The Crystal Cave, et al.), but she does suffer when she achieves what she is looking for -- the "heart's desire" of the title. A poignant tale, because she loses as much as she gains, as does Merlin. I found it a bit weak, though, perhaps because of being influenced by the more strongly drawn and down-to-earth characters of Stewart's books.

The last story in this issue, "Serostatus" by John Peyton Cooke, is classed in the bio blurb as a dark fantasy rather than as a horror or a supernatural thriller. I'm not sure I'm as finely tuned to the nuances of the differences in either direction as I should be, but in this case, it didn't matter. It achieved my litmus test of that "grab my guts" feeling, and after that, classification didn't matter.

We meet Tom on his way home from the movies, pondering on the simplicity of myths about hell and other aspects of the underworld, whether they were perpetrated by Hollywood or delivered down to us from Gilgamesh and his heirs. Tom is recently bereaved, Eric, his partner of 15 years having succumbed to AIDS. He has spent the last five years looking after his dying lover, and has cut himself off from participating socially in the outside world. His only connection is Edwin, someone he doesn't particularly like, but with whom he has something in common: they are the only survivors of their circle of friends.

Tom's self-imposed isolation and sorrow at his partner's death do not make him a martyr, though, of which he is fully aware. He is an imperfect man, caught between a relentless present full to overflowing with unhappiness and directionless meanderings, and an equally relentless past that had in it episodes of carefree joy. His future he cannot bear thinking about, since his freedom from the disease and his precautions pretty much guarantee he will live to a lonely and bitter old age. It is not surprising, then, that his past comes back to haunt him, but in a way that seduces him into a course of action that ultimately seals his fate.

There is a nice and subtle balance to this story between the beginning and the ending, which gives it a bit more substance than just a simple theme of "consequence." I'm not sure why this is dark fantasy rather than horror, so clearly I have more research to do. However, if I get to read more stories that I enjoy as much, researching is going to be a lot of fun.

Overall, in terms of quality and enjoyment, an average issue. I will be pursuing my studies into the horror genre with diligence, especially if future issues give me as broad and as entertaining a sampling as this one.

Theresa Wojtasiewicz is the former editor of Sol Rising, the newsletter of the Friends of the Merril Collection, a member of the Cecil Street Writers Workshop, and an avid (though lately too infrequent) reader of fantasy and science fiction. She works in desktop publishing, doing things like brochures and newsletters, to feed her reading habit.