Strange Horizons, October 25-November 8, 2010

This review covers three stories whose authors utilize less traditional styles. The issue published on November 15 contains part one of two, so I elected to review the entire piece next month. 

Colleen Mondor leads off on October 25, 2010 with “What We Left Behind In Jacksonville.”

We were on the way to the Jaycees Annual Haunted House. There were seven of us crammed in the car which was okay because it meant there were three of us in the front seat and I was mashed up against Jack and he had one hand on the wheel and one on my knee which was driving us both a little crazy in a good way. We were all wearing those halfway costumes you wear in high school; I was dressed as a gypsy and Jack was some kind of zombie version of Sinatra.

I’d love to say the narrator’s description of living in a haunted house gets scary, but it doesn’t. What didn’t work for me was the re-telling of events interspersed with banter, questions from the other kids about why the family just didn’t move, and comments about why putting crosses up on walls to ward off ghosts is a bad idea.

You religious people always have to pray first. It takes up valuable running away time.

It gets worse, doesn’t it? asked Jack.

Yeah, I said. It gets worse.

Yes the family endures some travails, and in the last paragraphs the symbolic links to the haunted events are heralded by a dramatic shift to more mature, comtempletative prose.

We beat the haunted house; it was when we were living happily ever after that the bad thing got us.

At that moment, the story transforms into a magical realist literary tale rather than the spooky, real time horror I was expecting during the week leading up to Halloween.

On November 1, the literary wheel spins toward allegory with “Hokkaido Green” by Aidan Doyle.

A brown bear entered the clearing. It walked upright and carried an old-fashioned miner’s lantern filled with fireflies. It waddled towards the pool, looking less like a predator than like an elderly sumo wrestler tottering uncertainly towards a bout with a reigning champion.

The metaphors pour forth from signs warning “closed due to bear sighting,” the bear’s cell phone, and Hitoshi’s recollections. He gives up a lot for his dream, but the whimsical tone of this short tale conveys a sense of a peaceful acceptance of life’s trials.

The longest story of this lot is “Household Spirits” by C.S.E. Cooney. HF a.k.a Hal, or Hal Fletcher, can’t make up his mind what he wants to be called, or what he wants from his ex-wife, Del, while he’s holed up in Prophetdam with their son.

. . . ever since we crossed borders out of Westrose, I been feeling ill at ease. But I stand with what I said before: Jessemee’s no more meant for city life than I was. I didn’t do this venture with him, he’d’ve gone to sea. Then we both of us would’ve lost him.

 . . . there’s land for grabs out there, and houses too, ready furnished with all a family needs, good fields and rivers, plenty of woods to log, lakes to fish in. Whatever a man wants, out there for the taking. But you have to take the ghosts, too.

Hal’s series of long letters to Del describe the ghosts who inhabit Lake Slumber, a valley flooded when the Kilquut were vanquished.

Mimo’s our ghost. Who’s flesh just like Jessemee. Mimo has dark black eyes with no whites, no hair but a thing sticking out the top of his head that’s a bit like a spike, and a bit like a fin, and even a bit more like a tentacle. It moves. Jessemee says it’s called a crest.

There is an uneasy peace in Prophetdom, until Lichen arrives.

She’s a little older than Mimo, about fourteen, and there is a blue mama quail on the right side of her skull and six baby quail circling clear to the left side of her skull. Her crest is different than Mimo’s. More like seven shorter spikes all in a row. Sharp-looking. [. . .] I’m having Mimo teach me Kilquut, which all the genii know, but they don’t know how they know it, just that it was waiting for them, in their blood, same as how to make green fire and other things.

Seems the Gladstones, who overran the Kilquut longhouse after the massacre, have a ghost of their own. And these “Guzzlers,” as Hal calls them because “they’re always in their cups,” don’t treat Lichen or Mimo very well. When Jess come to their defense, there’s lots of trouble, all documented in rambling correspondence.

This story combines a pioneer Western, a backwoods hillbilly tale, a metaphor for the destruction of Native American life, and a splash of the speculative with a verse of poetry tossed in for balance. The epistolary form, heavy with dialect, gives a one-sided view though Jess does occasionally append the typical teenager’s note (send food) to his mom.

Del never answers directly, but sends creature comforts for them–a true long suffering ex waiting patiently back home for them to come to their senses.

Ms. Cooney’s choice to use only Hal’s point of view makes sense, and gives one the impression of an unreliable narrator in more ways than one. This story will have you pondering its complexities for some time.

In sum, this month at Strange Horizons showcases stories which tick around the dial toward more literary prose. Read them with an open mind. They might not be what you’d expect, but they’re layered and nuanced.


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