Remember, it’s not the stories that are horrible — but they will certainly give you a case of the horrors if they do their job right. This week Terry looks at the four novelettes nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award, which will be presented at Readercon. This year Readercon will take place July 12 through 15, in Burlington, Massachusetts.
“Omphalos” by Livia Llewellyn, is the first nomination for this writer whose first book, The Engines of Desire: Tales of Love & Other Horrors is also nominated in the single-author collection category (“Omphalos” appears in the collection). It is about a horrifically dysfunctional family in which every family member seems to be having sex with every other family member of the opposite sex, whether the sex partner is willing or not. June, who is 15 years old, is very much not willing to accede to her father’s incestuous demands, but he doesn’t give her a choice, raping her every chance he gets. He sees their family vacation as a chance for the family to “be alone,” by which he seems to mean even more rape with even fewer chances for June to get away. June hopes to find some degree of relief through her sexual relationship with her brother, Jaime, but she is in competition with her own mother for his attention. This set-up is horrific enough, but when the road disappears from under the camper her father is driving with the help of a strange and changing map, the forests of the State of Washington are revealed as a Lovecraftian hell. Llewellyn writes in the second person, a voice difficult to pull off well, but she does it. Her writing will make you think not only of H.P. Lovecraft, but of Laird Barron (who contributed the introduction to Llewellyn’s collection) and other dabblers in the recent renaissance of baroque, highly atmospheric horror. (You can also find this story in the Ellen Datlow-edited anthology, The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 4.)
Peter Straub’s work is getting darker. “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine” may be the darkest story he’s written yet, where the evil is languid and spoiled, with no seeming malice. Ballard and Sandrine have some mysterious source of wealth that allows them to spend an indeterminate period of time on a yacht cruising down the Amazon River. The yacht, like so many structures in fantasy, appears to be larger on the inside than on the outside. It also seems to be manned by an invisible crew; at least, Ballard and Sandrine are never able to catch anyone in any of the rooms they inhabit, nor even in the rooms that they have been forbidden to visit. The food they enjoy is equally mysterious: unidentifiable as any particular kind of meat or vegetable, but inexplicably delicious. Ballard and Sandrine spend their time engaging in an extreme form of sadism and masochism, taking turns as top and bottom, occasionally taking days or longer to recover from one of their bouts — a relationship that has bloomed ever since Ballard first discovered Sandrine cutting herself when they were both much younger (though Ballard is clearly a good 20 years younger than Sandrine). The voyage they are on takes a turn from indulging in their sex play, if it can be called that, when Sandrine attempts to do some shopping ashore; and the end, from there, seems inevitable. You’ll feel like you need a shower after you finish reading this one, but it is clearly a story written by a master of the genre at the top of his form. (This story is also available in The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 4.)
Lucius Shepard’s “Ditch Witch,” from the Ellen Datlow-edited anthology, Supernatural Noir, is the story of Michael, who is driving as far and as fast as he can away from a man in Los Angeles who gave “[a] pathetic little kiss”; the impression one gets is that Michael was tempted, and he didn’t want to be. On the way north, Michael picks a girl up at a rest area who sees him as a meal ticket. Michael is thinking of driving straight through, but after too much cocaine and too much road, he decides they need to stop at a motel. They find the Elfland Lodge somewhere in Oregon (the Pacific Northwest has become a very scary place in horror fiction over the last few years). The guy behind the desk tells Michael to be sure to check out the wooden elves out back, which the owner brought back from the Black Forest in Germany. Michael and the girl dutifully go to check out the elves, and the girl pronounces them “wicked.” So it’s not too surprising when Michael and the elves have a close encounter in the dark of night. And it’s even less surprisingly when the girl starts to seem like she might have more to her than a simple small town runaway. The story never fully coalesces into a coherent tale of terror: is the source of evil here the elves or the girl or both or neither? Certainly both Michael seems like a poor excuse for a human being, making it hard to sympathize with him as the victim of unknowable forces.
Jeffrey Ford‘s story also appears in Supernatural Noir; it is called “The Last Triangle, and it’s about a drug addict going into withdrawal in a town called Fishmere on a cold, pre-Halloween night. The addict, who is the first person narrator of the story, gets lucky, as an old woman takes him under her wing and nurses him through the process, giving him a place to sleep, money to buy clothes, and, perhaps most importantly, someone who cares what happens to him. In the process, he gets caught up in a bit of magic, dark and strong. It’s a typical Ford story, full of his own brand of magic.
My favorite story of the five was “The Summer People” by Kelly Link, which appears in both the anthology Steampunk! An Anthology of Fantastically Rich and Strange Storiesand in the magazine Tin House 49: Steampunk! Link’s stories all seem utterly unexplainable to me, just like life but with the added twist of the supernatural, and this story is no exception. “The Summer People” is about Fran, whose father is a shiftless ne’er-do-well who skips out on her while she’s laid low by a bad case of the flu. He doesn’t just leave her to go find Jesus — again — at a revival meeting, he leaves her with a ton of work to do for the summer people, who will be arriving soon for the season. Or so we think, when we first read about Fran’s work. But it seems that the “summer people” also is a term used to describe the folks who live up the way in a crumbling old house, who seem to be — well, it’s unclear. Are they fairies? They apparently are in the business of granting wishes, when it occurs to them to be generous. What is clear is that Fran is tied to them, and won’t ever be able to leave, not unless someone comes along to replace her, the way she replaced her mother. It’s a charming story with a hint of menace, nothing like the other three stories nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award, which are all saturated with horror and evil. Perhaps it’s the story’s subtlety that grabbed me so, if not its quirkiness.
I’m glad I’m not on the judge’s panel for this award. These four stories are so different, one from the other, with such different tones, all completely original. They are worth seeking out and devouring like gently poisoned bonbons.