“Magical realism” can be a misleading term. There is a nonsensical quality to magical realism in literature; mystifying content which isn’t realistic at all. In high fantasy, magic makes internal sense, like an alternate science. There are plausible magic “systems,” schools of wizardry and races of creatures with particular abilities. With magical realism, the magic is at odds with the real world. It isn’t internally rational. It isn’t a new science: it’s magic.
“The Earth and Everything Under” by K.M. Ferebee (Shimmer #19) is a lovely piece of magical realism that perfectly encapsulates that spirit of the unexplainable. In this tale of witchcraft, nature’s laws have been forgotten and re-endowed with primordial power.
In this tale of witchcraft, nature’s laws have been forgotten and re-endowed with primordial power.
Elyse is a witch, as was her now-dead husband Peter, and the magic that clings to the characters and their relationship feels both familiar and completely irrational. Elyse does not cast “spells” — not until the very end — but nature acts out around her. “Peter had been in the ground for six months when the birds began pushing up out of the earth,” the piece begins. This “plague of birds” gets stranger when Elyse discovers the birds have letters in them, written by Peter from the underworld over a passage of time which has been longer for him than it has been for her.
Elyse treats this miracle with caution and more than a little resignation. We are given the sense that she has no better idea of what is going on than we do. She collects the letters, reading some and storing others. She cleans some of the birds and tries — unsuccessfully — to feed others to the local wolves. The magic in Ferebee’s world isn’t the kind that a witch can use, but one which she weathers, much like her grief. She knows the plague of bird will end when it’s over. ““They’re birds,” Elyse said. She crossed her arms: final. “They’re not my creatures. They’ll do what birds do.””
The extraordinary birds are juxtaposed with the very plain, very decent attentions of the local sheriff, Linden. Linden treats Elyse the way Elyse treats the magic: with respect and caution, without trying to understand or control. We are given to understand that his approach is different from the previous sheriff’s, who Elyse holds responsible for Peter’s death. The violence implied by Peter’s run in with the law feels out of place in this piece, which is absent Elyse’s anger or any institutionalized ill-will towards her. Witchcraft is forbidden, we’re told, but her neighbours bring her Peter’s letters anyway. It is hard to see where in this environment of distant respect a violent death might have happened.
It’s a minor quibble, though, because the piece isn’t about Peter. It’s about waiting out grief, forgiving, forgetting, and moving on. The magical storm swirling around Elyse is no less explicable than the emotional storm any grieving person weathers. Magic, like death, makes no sense. Sometimes, it just happens.
“Before the Rains Came” by Jack Hollis Marr (Lackingtons #2) is a great example of how imbuing a situation with unfathomable qualities can turn an innocent story into a sinister one. This is the creepiest unicorn story you will ever read. In hindsight, unicorns are fundamentally creepy. Often depicted as horned, goat-like horses who come to virgins in order to lay their heads in their laps, all one needs to do is ask what is in it for the unicorn and the whole thing starts to lose its veneer of purity. This is exactly what Marr has done.
This is the creepiest unicorn story you will ever read.
The unicorn which comes to the boy is a predator with sharp teeth and a rough tongue “made to lick meat from bone”, a predator’s musk and a honeyed voice. The boy mistrusts the creature instinctively and must be coaxed out of hiding with promises that the creature will lie down and make itself at least a little vulnerable. The unicorn talks its way closer and closer to the boy with contradictory statements — “your innocence called me after you,” the unicorn says, but the boy knows he is innocent “in a technical sense only” — until the boy allows the beast’s head in his lap. Nothing the unicorn says can make this intimate encounter seems less dangerous, given its aggressive insistence on the exchange. Despite prostrating itself, the unicorn is clearly a hunter.
The story is a power negotiation between hunter and hunted. The boy is wily himself — he does not consider himself an innocent, after all — but even when he obtains an enormous sacrifice from the unicorn, he knows “he has done something very unwise.” The exchange has changed the boy. This might be the terrible magic of simply growing up, or something more violent. Imbued with the unicorn’s magic, he “must learn how to hunt.” Though Marr suggests that the boy may always have been on that road to corruption, there is little ambiguity on this point: he has been corrupted by the encounter. You can’t control this kind of magic.
Science fiction can be magical realist as well, although we tend to put more pressure on anything identifying itself as “science fiction” to “get the science right.” Nevertheless, science fictional technology seen through the lens of a character who does not understand the technology often appears the same way: chaotic, random, senseless and unfathomable. “Migratory Patterns of Underground Birds” by E. Catherine Tobler (Clarkesworld #92) is one such story, a post-apocalyptic dystopia told through the eyes of a young woman who has been born and raised underground, and now finds herself roaming the Earth’s lonely surface in search of survival and companionship.
“Migratory Patterns of Underground Birds” by E. Catherine Tobler (Clarkesworld #92) is one such story, a post-apocalyptic dystopia told through the eyes of a young woman who has been born and raised underground, and now finds herself roaming the Earth’s lonely surface in search of survival and companionship.
The protagonist is alone. Born in an underground bunker — better described as a prison than a shelter — she once wandered in the company of an older woman named Cipta, but Cipta has been taken. The protagonist does not know who or what is taking people, and so neither do we. Tobler drops hints about bunker guards, lights in the sky and body snatchers, but it doesn’t coalesce into a clear picture of an enemy or system. What has happened is less important than that is has.
As the protagonist’s struggles to live her day-to-day life on an empty earth, she grows more and more desperate for human company. After a close encounter with a man who was taken just before she could reach him, she becomes distraught about being left behind. Her approach to being taken is metaphysical rather than technological. Despite the potential sinister motives of whatever is taking people (and their bodies), she soon longs to be taken as well.
Tobler’s story is about enduring the journey rather than uncovering or decoding it. What the story lacks in conventional plot it more than makes up for in language, and what it lacks in worldbuilding it makes up in character building. This is a Crusoe story of being marooned in a world where there can be no answers those made up to sooth the spirit. Though the story’s ambiance is ultimately more introspective than I typically enjoy, the totally non-ambiguous ending leaves the reader on a note of real hope that feels rock-solid after a journey where salvation was only ever glimpsed at a distance.