It really isn’t fair, as others have pointed out, how November/December short story publications tend to get lost in the shuffle between one year and the next. Reviewers are fixated on compiling best-of-year lists and by the time we’re done with them, publishers are charging out of the gate with some pretty magnificent-looking January issues. So I will hope you will forgive me a short glance back at some interesting stories from the end of 2014.
The entire November 2014 issue of The Dark deserves a read, but it was Eric Schaller’s “The Three Familiars” that stood out for me. This is the coming-of-age story of a good old-fashioned witch, the kind who is creepy and nasty and awful. After disposing of her parents for no particular reason except that she is nasty, the witch creates three familiars – Legs, Hands, and Eyes – to serve her and keep her company. The story is broken into one section for each of her familiars, culminating in her fourth poignant creation.
This is the coming-of-age story of a good old-fashioned witch, the kind who is creepy and nasty and awful.
Told in the style of a fairy tale (though it is set in a world which might as well be present day,) Schaller tells us right away that “Although a witch may menstruate, she may never give birth.” The witch is not exactly a picture of tenderness and motherly affection, and yet her urge to create is her strongest motivation. Whether out of ego or spite, the witch sets about creating lives in her own way. She doesn’t suffer from an excess of love and affection, but she has magic and craft.
The witch’s creations are delightfully pragmatic. Legs, the first familiar, is bred from stock fed on her own flesh. Hands, the second, is a salvaged attempt at more conventional baby-making. Eyes, the third, is created out of a need for magical parity (three is the magic number, of course) but when the magic it brings seems to undermine her authority, she recognizes in it the subversive spirit of a true creation.
The witch excels in particular at reducing life to its component parts – literally – in order to put them back together in a way that better suits her needs. This is fundamentally repulsive to us, who like to think life is more than a sum of its parts. Schaller plays this contrast expertly. Most of the witch’s creations are creepy because they are animate without being lives – they lack a certain autonomy, bound, as they are, to her will. Creating a new life requires more than parts and mechanical obedience – it requires a free will. It cannot be planned and it will not be what you try to force it to be. It is something (we like to think) beyond craft.
“Three Familiars” shows this and more. Schaller’s witch is horrifying, her magic is authentic, and the creation properly miraculous.
Schaller’s omniscient fairy-tale style leaves open the question of whether the witch should have created life, settling on an ambiguous note that suggests a comeuppance. Our literary tradition tends to frown upon “playing God.” This made Naim Kabir’s gritty “Prism City Blues” (Unlikely Story #10) an interesting, if uneven, piece. Dr. Shreeya Murrow, the much-lauded creator of retrovirus, an injectable immortality drug, creates and recreates the life in Prism City according to her own design. She pays no real price for her interference. If there is a moral charge to be levied at Dr. Murrow, it is left to the reader to do it.
Dr. Shreeya Murrow, the much-lauded creator of retrovirus, an injectable immortality drug, creates and recreates the life in Prism City according to her own design.
“Prism City Blues” takes a little while to get to the crux of the story, spending the first two scenes introducing Prism City inhabitants involved in the sale and distribution of black market retrovirus. The drug crime set-up is a strange juxtaposition for the green city we eventually see transformed by over a century of Dr. Murrow’s projects. The city has been partially overtaken by a rainforest of Dr. Murrow’s making and Murrow is in the habit of distributing her retrovirus on the streets to people who could not normally afford it. But Dr. Murrow appears neither concerned about the gritty drug dealing nor the creation of a new Eden.
Murrow is, ultimately, at the root of everything in this story: the drug trade, the terraforming, and the drug’s strange side-effects; yet for all her involvement, she fails to be the heart of the story. She is in mourning, but a mourning which is difficult to understand. There is some ambiguity about who, or what, she mourns. Part of the confusion is in her personal timeline: we are given to understand that she developed the retrovirus to save her father, but that she was “too late.” Dr. Murrow is also 150 years old, thanks to her drug, so we have to assume she lost her father some hundred years earlier. This does not make him a good candidate for the kind of raw, immediate loss she seems to be experiencing. It becomes difficult to swallow Murrow’s single-minded devotion to transforming Prism City at all costs over a hundred-year time span.
And yet Murrow’s design is an attractive one. Kabir drops in snippets of neo-Malthusianism, hints of an overly-settled humanity who have lost something of wild and unexpected things. Murrow’s plan is wild and unexpected, but in the absence of a credible motivation from the creator, the big picture she has so carefully orchestrated remains fragmented. The result is some very good writing, interesting ideas, and intriguing characters who don’t quite gel into a coherent whole. Despite some misgivings about “Prism City Blues”, between it and Naim Kabir’s great story in the above-mentioned issue of The Dark, I am enthusiastic about what Mr. Kabir’s pen will bring us in the year to come.
Moving away from destructive creation and into just plain destruction, we have “The Wolf and the Dragon” by Mary Thaler (Crossed Genres #24). The story begins with the onset of a mysterious – but, frankly, completely amazing – monster-apocalypse and then follows Thuy Le as she tries to find safety and stability for her three grandchildren, an orphan, and her elderly neighbour, Frances.
The story begins with the onset of a mysterious – but, frankly, completely amazing – monster-apocalypse and then follows Thuy Le as she tries to find safety and stability for her three grandchildren, an orphan, and her elderly neighbour, Frances.
The disaster that befalls the world is almost cartoonish: giant monsters appear out of nowhere and just plain start wrecking stuff, Godzilla-style. Dragons, sea monsters, Vietnamese Ky lan, huge wolves – in fact, the monsters appear in different forms to different witnesses, so what they are is not as relevant as what they do. They destroy homes, cities, ships, and networks. They eat people and tear families apart. They have taken away normal life and replaced it with a struggle to survive.
Thuy is no stranger to similar struggles, being a survivor of the Vietnam War. Frances, her elderly neighbour, turns out to be an iconoclast with such useful skills as the ability to hot wire a car and break into a classroom with a credit card. Both women are in a good place – despite their respective health problems – to keep their heads straight during the crisis and focus on the real thing, which is to get themselves and the children to safety.
The premise alone makes this story worth reading. For those of us who are sick and tired of zombie stories where emotionally gutted authority figures wave guns at each other and do all kinds of morally vapid things in the name of survival, it is refreshing to read a story where the skills necessary for survival are the same ones you need to raise happy and healthy children. Nobody tries to fight a monster, but they do have to comfort survivors, scavenge for shoes, and remind opportunistic little boys that we don’t rob people. They remember that they not only need to survive, but need to find other people and live alongside them. Monsters are no excuse for sociopathic behaviour.
The result is far from boring. There are monsters everywhere. Thuy and Frances both face challenges simply in adapting to a normal that is tough on a body no longer in peak condition. Thuy and the children have already lost family in the disaster, and the story delivers on the heart-tugging trauma of personal loss. The world might be destroyed, but decency isn’t. There are enough bleak disaster stories in the world. “The Wolf and the Dragon” is a welcome addition to the scant canon of the optimistic side.