Book Review: The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2014 edited by Paula Guran
Even the fastest, most dedicated readers can’t read everything that’s published each year. Not even in relatively limited genres like fantasy or horror. That’s where “Year’s Best” collections come in handy. Someone or several someones has gone through the enormous pile of short literature produced in the previous year, and winnowed it down to a manageable size of good stories for you.
Admittedly, these collections also come down to a matter of personal taste. In this case, Ms. Guran has chosen not to pick just straight up horror stories (which do not necessarily include fantastic elements) but fantasy stories with “dark” elements. She mentions in the introduction that at least some good stories were excluded because they weren’t brought to her attention–small internet publishers might not even know such a collection exists to submit to.
This thick volume contains thirty-two stories, beginning with “Wheatfield with Crows” by Steve Rasnic Tem. Years ago, a man’s sister vanished in a wheatfield. Now, he and his mother have returned to the site as darkness falls. Will history repeat?
The final story is “Iseul’s Lexicon” by Yoon Ha Lee. A spy discovers that the army occupying half her country is being aided by not-quite-human wizards everyone thought were wiped out centuries before. They are compiling a lexicon of every human language for nefarious purposes, and it is up to Iseul to find a way to stop them. In the end, she learns that there are innocent casualties in war no matter how targeted the weapon.
Some stories I particularly liked:
“The Legend of Troop 13” by Kit Reed, about Girl Scouts gone feral, and the foolish men who think to possess them. This one has a logical stinger in its tail, and very dark humor.
“Phosphorous” by Veronica Schanoes is about the women who made phosphorous matches, and their fight for better working conditions. The viewpoint character is a woman dying of “phossy jaw” caused by the poison she’s been exposed to. She is determined to see the strike through, and her grandmother knows a way–but the cost is high indeed.
“Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell” by Brandon Sanderson concerns a bounty hunter who must track her prey in the forest that has Three Simple Rules. Don’t start fires, don’t shed blood…and don’t run at night. So simple. But there are other bounty hunters in the forest tonight, and treachery. Some rules will be broken, and the shades will descend.
One story I didn’t care much for was “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” by Caitlin R. Kiernan, which is a description of a horror movie based on the legend of Elizabeth Bathory, the Blood Countess. There are some good scenes, but the presentation muffles the effect, taking me out of the story. There’s also use of “Gypsy” stereotypes within the film.
Most of the other stories are good to decent, and there are big names like Tanith Lee and Neil Gaiman represented. If this is the sort of genre fiction you like, it would be worthwhile to check the book out at your library–and then buy it if enough of the stories please you.
Magazine Review: Saucy Romantic Adventures August 1936 by various
This was one of the “spicy” pulp magazines, sold “under the counter” to readers wanting something more titillating than the standard action fare. By modern standards, this is pretty tame stuff, mostly consisting of descriptions of women’s naked bodies (minus genitalia) and strong hints that the characters engage in extramarital sex. The reason this particular issue was reprinted by Adventure House is because the Domino Lady is on the cover (painted by Norman Saunders). But we’ll get back to her.
The lead story is “Yeomen of the Woods” by Armstrong Livingston (almost certainly a psuedonym.) It takes place during the Anarchy, the war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda in 12th Century England. Four people traveling through the woods are set upon by bandits led by John o’ the Glade. John, it turns out, is in the style of Robin Hood (who traditionally is said to have lived some decades later.)
The wealthy knight is held for ransom, and his squire set to fetch it. A poor monk returned from the Far East is treated with a bit more respect. As for the stripling lad, it turns out to be a maiden in boy’s clothing. Alais has in fact come to the woods to find John and request his help. Her father is a craftsman, and false rumors of his wealth have reached the ears of Baron Raymond de Gondrecourt.
As a result, the wicked baron has captured Alais’ father and is trying to compel the old man to tell where his treasure is hid. Since there is no treasure, the baron will no doubt resort to torture unto death to force the old man to speak words he does not have.
John doesn’t have the forces to invade Gondrecourt Castle, but comes up with a plan to trick the baron and one of his neighbors (who the baron is at odds with) into fighting each other away from their castles, then have a third lord of better character mop up the survivors while John and his men use a ruse to take the small garrison that will be left at Gondrecourt. This works, up to a point, but it turns out that Gondrecourt’s castellan is a wily old fellow and more than a match for John’s strategy.
The monk turns out to have brought gunpowder back from China, a very useful item. Too bad that history must be preserved!
Honestly, this story contains no “spicy” bits whatsoever and could easily have been printed in any of the standard adventure pulps. There’s period ethnic prejudice between the Normans and Saxons, and the monk uses some unfortunate language to describe the Chinese.
“Emeralds Aboard” by Lars Anderson is the Domino Lady tale. Ellen Patrick was a California socialite until her father was murdered by the crooked political machine. To avenge her father and maintain her lifestyle, Ellen donned a domino mask, cape and backless white dress to become the Domino Lady. She steals from the rich (particularly corrupt politicians) and takes a cut for herself before giving the rest to the poor. She was one of only a handful of masked mystery women in pulp fiction.
In this story, Ellen is returning from vacation in Hawaii when she learns that the snooty wife of a corrupt politician is aboard, and sporting some valuable emeralds. Also aboard is “Fingers” Deshon, a known jewel thief, and part of a gang that has a grudge against the Domino Lady. Ellen must find a way to lift the gems and deliver her rival to justice, with the unwitting assistance of a handsome ship’s officer.
The cover depicts a scene from the story, as Fingers (disguised as a ship’s officer) whips the concealing deck chair blanket off Domino Lady. The clown in the background is seasick and doesn’t see any of this. Later, Ellen starts a striptease to distract Fingers, but he doesn’t get to see much before she knocks him out.
An amusing but slight story.
“Cupid By a Nose” by Ernie Phillips takes us out West, to a young farm girl hoping to make some money by competing in a rodeo. What Clara Lou doesn’t know is that the women’s competitions in this particular traveling rodeo are fixed to make sure that the owner’s daughter Vesta always wins.
Vesta’s fiance Bob Carter takes a shine to Clara Lou pretty much instantly–he’s telling her that he loves her later that night. Vesta understandably reacts badly to this, framing Carter for running off Clara Lou’s handsome trained horses. That leaves Clara Lou with just Cupid, a scarred, scrawny-looking cayuse.
This being an underdog tale, Clara Lou and Cupid outperform expectations, even winning the big race. The crooked judges try to disqualify Clara Lou in favor of Vesta, but Carter shows up with Clara Lou’s other horses and the proof of wrongdoing just in time to save the day.
The insta-love thing aside, I liked that both the male and female leads got to shine and contribute to the solution of the story’s problem.
“Aloha Oe” is set in Hawaii. Bim Arlen, recent Annapolis graduate, is on shore leave on the big island. Taking a walking tour, he’s shocked yet intrigued when he spots a young woman skinny-dipping on a remote beach. After waiting for her to put her clothes back on, Bim introduces himself to Kee.
Kee is a local mixed race girl, who is “white-passing” at a small distance. She works as a schoolteacher in Honolulu, but is on vacation here in her tiny home village. Bim and she fall in love almost instantly and are soon engaged with the blessing of her father.
Except that then Bim remembers that all his relatives are racist, and the Navy officers’ wives society isn’t much better. He’s not sure he has the moral courage to stand up to them, nor does he want to subject Kee to their scorn. Bim’s cold feet lead to an apparent suicide. You suck, Bim.
“The Lover of the Moon Girl” by Hector Gavin Grey, is schlock science fiction. Zane Hansard, an unusually handsome and strapping astronomer, discovers that a spaceship from the moon is about to land near his Pasadena observatory. He rushes to tell his boss, only to discover that said boss is in league with the moon invaders–indeed, he was the one who invited them here!
Cecelia, the moon girl, comes from a society that uses artificial wombs, and knows not the concept of love between a man and a woman. (Or any of the variants you might have thought of.) One hot kiss later, Cecelia has converted to the Earth cause, and winds up pumping babies out the old-fashioned way.
It’s exactly the sort of thing that gives pulp SF a bad reputation, with bad science, plot holes galore and a terrible romance plotline.
“Dark Lady” by Mohammed El Bey is set in Egypt. Archaeologist Nelson Cliff bears an amazing resemblance to the statues of Amen-Ra the Second, whose tomb he is excavating. His headman Abu has been acting suspiciously of late, far less efficient and effective than when they started.
Things come to a head when a young woman from a nearby city comes to the dig claiming to be Ayesha, wife of Amen-Ra. Nelson is not amused, but a series of incidents indicates that even if she isn’t a reincarnation of the ancient queen, the girl has some peculiar gifts. Abu’s trap works, but not before he himself is destroyed.
Murky story, and the villain is ill-defined.
“Mockery” by Marie Forgeron is a short-short. A man meets his ex-wife on a cruise ship back from Hawaii. It turns out this was deliberate; she’s gotten divorced from the man she dumped him for, and is ready to let bygones be bygones. Unfortunately for both of them, the man has a subtle and horrific plan for revenge. An effective little chiller. (Some offhand racism.)
The issue is rounded out with “Our Days are Numbered” by Patricia Peabody. It’s a numerology column, which strikes first with the note that it’s hard to get any pleasure out of numerology if you don’t believe in it.
This is a nifty little reprint. If you’re just interested in the Domino Lady, her stories have been collected into their own book.
Magazine Review: Astounding Science-Fiction January 1946 edited by John W. Campbell, Jr.
Before Analog (see previous reviews), there was Astounding, the science fiction magazine that led the field for many years. Having gotten a copy of an issue from the pulp days, let’s take a look at what wonders lie within. Despite the cover date, the ads indicate it came out in early December 1945.
The lead and cover story is part one (of two) of “The Fairy Chessmen” by Lewis Padgett (a pseudonym for Henry Kuttner working with C.L. Moore.) It is roughly a century into the future, and the world is at war…again. After World War Two, the governments of Eurasia had crumbled, and reformed as the Falangists. They and America are the two superpowers and implacable enemies. Thanks to atom-bomb-proof shields and robot warfare, the war has stalemated for years.
Most Americans live deceptively peaceful lives in scattered communities on the surface, while the warmen toil in vast underground cities whose actual locations are closely guarded secrets. Low Chicago might be below the ruins of Old Chicago, or anywhere in the Midwest. Of course, in such conditions claustrophobia and other mental illnesses are a continuing concern, and it’s up to the Department of Psychometrics to keep the warmen in good mental health.
Which is why it’s concerning that Cameron, the head of the department, has been having hallucinations of eyeball doorknobs and talking clocks. He’s trying to keep it a secret, but his help is desperately needed by the War Department. It seems they have captured a scientific formula from the enemy, one that drives anyone who studies it mad (sometimes giving them strange powers in the process. For example, the levitating man who thinks he’s Muhammad’s corpse.)
There are time travel shenanigans involved, and one character seems determined to produce a specific future. The title comes from “fairy chess”, variants of the strategy game that use changed rules, such as a knight that can only capture backwards, or a 10×10 board. The formula changes the rules of physics, sometimes in mid-equation, and scientifically trained minds crack under the strain.
A nifty throwaway (probably) bit is the existence of “fairylands”, miniature cities with tiny robots that people play with ala the Sims. There’s also an amusing typo when one character claims he’s “half misogynist” when he means “misanthrope.”
Unfortunately, this novel is long out of print, so I have no idea how it ends. The cliffhanger is neat: “The edges of the spoon thickened, curled, spread into cold metallic lips. And kissed him.”
“N Day” by Philip Latham (pen name of R.S. Richardson) concerns an astronomer who discovers the sun is about to go nova. He tells the world, but is dismissed as a crackpot. (Had there been more time, someone would have checked his math and found him correct.) As a result, he finds his spine for the first time in decades.
“Veiled Island” by Emmett McDowell takes place on Venus (the pulp Venus of swamps and jungles.) A three-person anthropological team goes in search of the title island to investigate reports of a new variant of human. Apparently, unlike Earth, Venus just keeps producing new human variants out of the swamps which then climb up the ladder of civilization as they travel to the other side of the planet.
The Earthlings promptly crash-land, losing their clothing and supplies–they themselves have to start from scratch. While struggling to survive, they run into the new variant of humans they were looking for. A variant that seems destined to replace homo sapiens.
The sexism is pretty thick here, the action guy protagonist denigrates his female colleague for wanting to be treated as an equal, calling her a “tomboy” and the type who would have been a suffragette back in the day. (Apparently something like feminism happened in this future, but he’s not too keen on the results.) Over the course of the story, she comes to realize how awesome he is, and they are planning to get married (in the now considered barbaric Twentieth Century fashion) at the end.
The evolutionary science is suspect–emotionlessness is viewed as a huge evolutionary advantage that will allow the new species to outcompete other humans and replace them.
“A Matter of Length” by Ross Rocklynn (pen name of Ross Louis Rocklin) takes place in a far future with galactic travel. A stable mutation has created a new kind of human, the “double-brained” Hypnos, who have the ability to hypnotize ordinary humans. They are not physically distinguishable from other humans, but can be detected by “Sensitives.” Hypnos face severe prejudice, and there’s a war going on between societies that want to exterminate them and those that tolerate them.
All that is background. A Hypno named Joe has been captured by anti-Hypno forces, and was being shipped back to their planet for a show trial and execution when the ship went off-course and landed on a planet where time has gone wonky. There’s a paranoid belief among some of the crew that Joe somehow caused this, or is making them hallucinate this, despite the anti-mind control forcefield surrounding his cell. Eventually, the time wonkiness allows Joe to escape, and he rescues the two people on the ship who are not entirely anti-Hypno.
It turns out that Hypno powers have been vastly exaggerated as propaganda by the anti-Hypno forces; Joe never actually uses his mind control abilities during the course of the story. It’s the holding cell force field that gives him the temporary advantage he needs as it shields him from the time wonkiness for a while. Keitha, the Sensitive woman who tracked him down, is dismayed to learn that she’s next on the extermination list after all the Hypnos have been eliminated (as Sensitives are Hypno/ordinary human crossbreeds.)
Apparently, there are also longevity treatments in this future, as the captain of the anti-Hypno ship holds a grudge against the Hypnos for the death of his daughter nearly a century before, with the war starting later. (It’s a “failure to save” instance–a doctor who was secretly a Hypno couldn’t cure the daughter from a fatal disease, and when his secret was revealed, he was lynched for deliberately killing a human girl.)
“The Plants” by Murray Leinster takes place on a planet with only one form of life. Plants with flowers that follow the sun…or anything unusual that happens. Four men whose spaceship was sabotaged crash-land on the planet. Are they more in danger from the pirates that sabotaged the ship for its precious cargo…or from the plants? A story that has some creepy moments, and could have gone full on horror if the author wanted.
“Fine Feathers” by George O. Smith is the final fiction piece. It’s a science fiction retelling of the fable “The Bird with Borrowed Feathers” usually ascribed to Aesop. A ruthless businessman discovers a way to artificially boost his intelligence by energizing his brain. The process renders the user sterile (somehow) but since he wasn’t interested in having children, Wanniston considers that a small price.
Being superhumanly intelligent gives Wanniston a huge advantage over his fellow Earthmen, and he is soon the most powerful businessman on the planet. But he yearns for more, and when a suicide trap makes it untenable for Wanniston to stay on Earth, he decides to join Galactic civilization, where dwell people who have come to super-intelligence by eons of evolutionary processes. He keeps using the brain energizer, and is soon even more intelligent than the Galactic Ones.
Being logical beings, the Galactic Ones recognize Wan Nes Stan’s (as he now calls himself) superior intellect, and are willing to install him as their leader…as soon as his experience catches up to his intelligence in a few centuries. Wan Nes Stan tries to shortcut the process, only to discover his true limitations and destroy himself.
The story bookends with identical dialogue at the beginning and end, which would be effective if the language in those conversations wasn’t so stilted. It also uses the 10% of your brain gimmick (which admittedly was less debunked back then.)
John W. Campbell’s editorial “–but are we?” is prescient on the subject of nuclear proliferation though thankfully humanity has survived so far.
There are two science fact articles. “Hearing Aid” by George O. Smith is a very short piece on radio proximity fuses. “Electrical Yardsticks” by Earl Welch is about the international standards for the volt, ampere and ohm; how they were decided, and how they are maintained. Lots of math here, and possibly the technology is dated, but likely fascinating reading if you want to know more about electrical engineering.
I liked the Leinster piece best because of the thin line it walks between horror and SF; “The Fairy Chessmen” has some great imagery, but with only part one I can’t judge its full effectiveness.
Overall, an average issue, but well worth looking up for old-time science fiction fans.