Jeffrey Ford took a chance on an unknown magazine, and sold us a story for the very first issue of Black Gate. (And a terrific story, too — a gonzo mystery set on an alien world, “Exo-Skeleton Town.” You can read the entire thing at Infinity Plus.) We’ve been pals ever since. One of the things I like about Jeff is he treats his Facebook friends to great, punchy mini-reviews of some excellent (and often hard-to-find) titles. That was the case yesterday, when he wrote the following about Scott Nicolay’s creepy horror tale After. He gave me permission to post it here. Enjoy.
if you get a chance, check out Scott Nicolay’s stand alone novella, After. About a woman who returns to her home in Seaside Heights after super storm Sandy to check on the damages. FEMA says she’s not allowed to stay but she does only to find out that some strange creature has been brought in by the storm and is lurking beneath her house.
This one’s got everything I like in a horror story — the slow burn, deep characterization so I care about the character, and the rare instance of a metaphorical resonance between the fearsome aspect of the world (the monster) and the defining condition of the character (in this case an abusive relationship). All this in a neat little book, well made (from Dim Shore Press) with a great cover and nice illustrations by Michael Bukowski.
Scott Nicolay is also the author of Do You Like to Look at Monsters? and Ana Kai Tangata: Tales of the Outer the Other the Damned and the Doomed.
After was published by Dim Shores on August 4th 2015. It is 104 pages, priced at $10 in trade paperback. The cover is by Michael Bukowski. The Dim Shores website is here.
See all of our recent Reviews here.
Just because I’ve taken a turn toward epic high fantasy in my reading of late doesn’t mean I’ve forsaken swords & sorcery. In fact, here’s my latest look at short stories from a trio of magazines you can read for free every single issue.
I’m starting this month off with Beneath Ceaseless Skies. I’ve written here before about my love-hate relationship with the magazine. Too often it just doesn’t print stories I’m interested in. Even when it does, its editors definitely have more literary taste than the pulpish flavor I prefer in my heroic fantasy. Issue #185 is a reminder of why I still look forward to BCS’s arrival every two weeks. Topped by a gorgeous painting by Feliks Grzesiczek that could easily pass for the locale of a Hammer film, the issue bills itself as “fantastically monstrous…for Halloween.” And it is.
“Demons Enough” by Ian McHugh is a little like Underworld (if Underworld wasn’t awful), set a little to the left of Beowulf’s Geatland. In other words, you get a shapeshifter throwing down with vampires, and folks named Thorfinn and Freydis trying to kill the lot of them. When the component elements of a story have been played with by an untold host of other writers over the years, the author has a lot of work to bring something original to the mix. That happens here with McHugh’s vampires, or leeches as they’re called. Cloaked by night and magic, they take on a more human form. In the sunlight, stripped of most of their power, their true selpulchral nature is revealed. Gloomy atmosphere, gut-squishing violence, and apprehension are delivered with a more than adequate degree of skill.
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NOTE: The following article was first published on March 21, 2010. Thank you to John O’Neill for agreeing to reprint these early articles, so they are archived at Black Gate which has been my home for over 5 years and 250 articles now. Thank you to Deuce Richardson without whom I never would have found my way. Minor editorial changes have been made in some cases to the original text.
The transformation of literary genres in the early twentieth century was marked by a series of intriguing parallels and recurrences. When Raymond Chandler, displaced as much in England as California, started down the mean streets of writing pulp fiction, he used an Erle Stanley Gardner story as his template. Chandler prepared a detailed synopsis of Gardner’s story and then re-wrote the story himself, comparing the results to the original.
Chandler’s first published pulp story, “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot” (1933) introduced the prototype for the hardboiled private eye who emerged six years later in Chandler’s landmark first novel, The Big Sleep in the form of Philip Marlowe. Likewise Chandler’s literary heir, Ross Macdonald, displaced as much in Canada as California, would use The Big Sleep as the template for his own first novel, The Moving Target (1949) and, in the process, introduced Marlowe’s successor, Lew Archer who would arguably represent the hardboiled detective realized to its full potential.
When Robert E. Howard, an outcast in his native Cross Plains, started down the path that would eventually give the world the genre now known as Sword & Sorcery, he used Paul L. Anderson’s story, “En-ro of the Ta-an” as the template for his various “Am-ra of the Ta-an” story drafts. Anderson would likely be a completely forgotten literary figure but for the efforts of Howard scholar, Rusty Burke. Even without Anderson as a reference point, Howard’s first attempts at creating a noble savage are instantly familiar to the modern reader as being works that are highly derivative of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Pellucidar, and Caspak novels. Just as the seminal Black Mask writers took the western and successfully brought it to an urban setting creating modern detective fiction in the process, so Burroughs and those he influenced took Rudyard Kipling’s Mowgli tales and laid the foundation for modern myth-making by cross-breeding jungle adventures with the lost worlds tales of Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and H. Rider Haggard.
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It is not easy to be a fan of classic pulp fiction and a person of good conscience in the 21st Century. It is far easier to embrace steam punk and all that has followed in its wake which treats the past as if it had the mores and indeed the colloquialisms of the present. As it is, one never knows when the Thought Police, those self-appointed guardians of right thinking, will decide a Dashiell Hammett is no longer possessed of literary merit because he also threw around racial slurs that were common in his day and didn’t have the foresight to have an enlightened view of sexuality when it came to capturing the world he lived in and wrote about.
So what does this have to do with Sax Rohmer? Actually quite a lot. After a two year delay, Strange Attractor Press has finally published Lord of Strange Deaths, their impressive critical study of the man and his works. Such a tome was long overdue and very welcome indeed. Many of the individual essays are excellent and display the insight and level of research one expects from academics. Sadly, the book comes from the second decade of the current century which means one has to be reminded over and over that Sax Rohmer was a very bad person. He lived in colonial times and exploited the fears of the Boxer Uprising to create a criminal genius who heralded from China.
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This is the marvelous sort of story that never quite allows you to form a picture in your head, because it’s always contradicting itself. It seems to exist on three (or more?) levels at once, strange images super-imposed on each other. On the one hand it seems a story of everyday modern life, Facebook and all, told with keen emotional resonance.
There’s for instance, this passage from a mother’s perspective when her daughter has an abortion:
“And afterwards, her daughter wanting ice cream and to sit by the river and watch the waterbirds dancing in the shallow water. Alice had rested her head on Clara’s shoulder, curled her feet up under her bottom like a child. Her breath had smelled of milk and sweet biscuits, and her hair of antiseptic. It is the last time Clara can remember her daughter wanting to be held.”
This passage sounds the sort of thing you could read in any mainstream fiction magazine, rich in sensory detail and lived-in experience.
But no. It’s firmly of our genre. Do you want to discover for yourself the speculative element, which slowly and imperceptibly bleeds into the tale? Go and read this lovely tale by Nike Sulway for free at Lightspeed, here. Then click on for the full review with spoilers.
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Joy Chant’s first novel, Red Moon and Black Mountain (1970), was published when she was only twenty-five years old. In the afterword to a later novel she explains how the world of her stories, Vandarei, grew out of fantasies she made up for herself as a child. At one point she made herself the great and majestic Queen of this world. The story of three siblings — Oliver, Penelope, and Nicholas — pulled out of England into the land of Vandarei, it reads a little like the Chronicles of Narnia crossed with The Lord of the Rings and wrung through Alan Garner’s darker fantasies.
The novel has often been dismissed as a mere clone of Tolkien’s work — most recently right here at Black Gate by Brian Murphy — but RMBM is a book that has also received tremendous praise over the decades. In his introduction to the first American edition, published as part of his Ballantine Adult Fantasy series, Lin Carter refers to it as a masterpiece. James Stoddard, author of The High House, calls it the best fantasy novel no one reads. It was the second recipient of the Mythopoeic Award back in 1972.
I first read RMBM about fifteen years ago, but retained only the dimmest memories of it. Rereading it, I will say it is one of the best works of epic high fantasy I’ve ever read. While not the toil of a lifetime, Chant draws on the same deep body of European mythology and archetypal characters as Tolkien with similar power and effect. Maybe due to its roots in her childhood imagination and definitely out of a deep well of talent, in Vanderei, its people, and its legends, Chant created a deeply heartfelt and fantastic world.
A mysterious figure lurking along the garden path sends the children out of this world and into Vandarei out of grave necessity. Penelope and Nicholas materialize along a path trod by the grave and steely princess In’serinna and her retinue. Oliver arrives among the nomadic Khentors and their single-horned horses. All the children have a part to play in an upcoming struggle for the future of Vandarei. Oliver, especially, will find himself tested to his limits.
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5 Tales from Tomorrow
Edited by T. E. Dikty
Crest Books (176 pages, $0.35, December 1957)
Cover by Richard Powers
T.E. Dikty edited a bunch of SF anthologies, mostly throughout the Fifties and many in collaboration with Everett F. Bleiler. Aside from Clifford Simak and perhaps one-hit wonder Tom Godwin, the names in this volume are not quite the SF A-list, but the results are mostly not bad.
“Push-Button Passion,” by Albert Compton Friborg
As I was reading this story I couldn’t help wondering if Friborg was the pseudonym for a better known author – Kurt Vonnegut. It has that whimsical, satirical feel that one tends to associate with Vonnegut. Turns out that it is indeed a pseudonym, but for an academic named Bud Foote, whose SF output was limited to this and one other short story, also published in the Fifties.
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I love short fiction. It’s how I was introduced to science fiction and fantasy, reading The Hugo Winners and The Early Asimov in the trailer in our back yard when I was twelve. I highlight a lot of anthologies and collections here on the blog, new and old (as you may have noticed).
John DeNardo, founder of the great SF Signal, shares my obsession with short genre fiction, and at the Kirkus Reviews site he uses a meditation on short stories as a crafty way to review Gardner Dozois’ 32nd volume of The Year’s Best Science Fiction, in his article “5 Reasons to Read Short Speculative Fiction Anthologies.” Take, for example, Reason #4: Short Fiction Is Fun.
People read fiction for fun, and where else can you experience so many fun stories than in a speculative fiction anthology that offers cool new worlds and ideas around which to tell them?
Few stories are as page-turning as “The Regular” by Ken Liu, set in a near-future Boston where a cybernetically enhanced investigator goes looking for a deadly serial killer. “West to East” by Jay Lake is as superb an adventure story as you’re ever likely to read. It involves a pair of space travelers stranded on an alien planet with a harsh atmosphere and having no way to return home. If you could encapsulate everything that is weird and wonderful about 1950s Sci-Fi B-movies, it’d probably look like “Passage of Earth” by Michael Swanwick, the story of an alien invasion as seen from the perspective of a medical examiner and his ex-wife. Then there’s the fast-moving “Red Light, and Rain” by Gareth L. Powell, a gripping action story about two time-traveling enhanced humans who wage a battle on the streets of present-day Amsterdam.
Read John’s complete article here, and see our coverage of The Year’s Best Science Fiction (including the complete TOC) here.
A Goldsmith era Fantastic, again, also from the stash I picked up at Sasquan. This one has a cover by Lloyd Birmingham, illustrating, rather faithfully, Randall Garrett’s “Hepcats of Venus” (a story probably published at about the last time one could have published it). The cover also advertises an Erle Stanley Gardner (of Perry Mason fame) SF story, “The Human Zero.” Interior illustrations are by Virgil Finlay, Leo Summers, and one Kilpatrick. I don’t recognize the last one, by name or style, and the ISFDB shows only 5 appearances by him or her, all in Amazing or Fantastic in 1961/1962.
The features are as usual for Fantastic on the scant side – Norman Lobsenz’ editorial and the letter column, According to You. The latter features a long letter by Mrs. Alvin A. Stewart on the subject of her dislike for David Bunch, in the process rehashing an ongoing debate. There are letters praising two serials in previous issues, James White’s Second Ending (which is excellent) and Manly Banister’s Magnanthropus, which I haven’t read, though I found the sequel (Seed of Eloraspon) to be fitfully enjoyable but far from a masterwork, and on the whole kind of preposterous. Paul Zimmer (presumably Marion Zimmer Bradley’s brother, and an author in his own right, Paul Edwin Zimmer) thought Magnanthropus the best serial Fantastic ever published. (Zimmer also takes a swipe at Bunch.) On the other hand, Fred Patten (a name to conjure with in fandom!) thought Magnanthropus a tremendous letdown after Second Ending.
I have to say I somewhat miss lettercols with that sort of spirited discussion of the stories in previous issues.
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…breathtaking moments where the very centuries seem to clash
Leather duster, shotgun… sword and lance. That’s pretty much an iconic Steampunk image, but it’s also a Confederate Cavalryman, which is why I asked Osprey to send me a review copy of their Confederate Cavalryman vs Union Cavalryman – Eastern Theater 1861-65 (Combat) – I am these days at least a 50% Steampunk author, after all.
I was expecting insights into what happens when “modern” Victorian cavalry armies clash. I got that, but also a sense of what cavalry warfare feels like in any era where cold steel and raw courage grant victory as much as good tactics and drill.
To an outsider, the American Civil War looks like oddly like a backwards version of World War One. Both were continental scale wars between belligerents who shared a civilisation. Both resulted from convoluted strings of decisions made with more enthusiasm for honour and principle than for preserving the lives of young men. However, during the course of the fighting, the Civil War gained moral purpose — became about slavery– whereas the Great War lost it — became about… well mostly mud, with the real crusades being internal, classically the development of tanks by both sides.
What’s interesting — to the same outsider — is that the American Civil War, unlike World War One, routinely had massed cavalry battles.
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