The Shirley Jackson Awards will be handed out in just less than two weeks, at Readercon in Burlington, Massachusetts. This is the third of three columns about the short fiction nominees, this column covering the novellas; the short stories are discussed here, and the novelettes are discussed here (now updated to include a discussion of Jeffrey Ford’s wonderful novella, “The Last Triangle” from the Ellen Datlow-edited anthology, Supernatural Noir).
Michael Morano’s “Displacement” from Stories from the Plague Years begins with a chilling picture: a serial killer is “showing” a victim’s body to her decapitated head, to demonstrate that she was, in fact, thin. The killer, the first person narrator of this tale, concludes that he was actually doing a good thing for her, “[a] benediction wholesome at St. Francis’s forsaking his life of comfort to wash the sores of lepers.” If by this point, a mere five paragraphs into the story, you’re thinking that you’ve got a narrator who is seriously mentally ill telling you a very warped tale, you’re absolutely right. Dean believes that he was taking revenge on those who had stressed him so greatly that he developed cancer, and that their deaths were deserved. He takes significant comfort in the notion that he will not survive long enough to stand trial and be executed, much less to be ministered to as a very sick man, as the prison psychiatrist advises him he is. Dean takes pleasure in explaining his murders to the doctor, including his meticulous efforts to avoid being caught — efforts so effective that, by the time he was taken into custody, he was sought by police in three states for murders so varying in method that no one even realized they had all been committed by the same man. But Dean’s psyche seems to have taken on a life of its own, at least in some matters. (For example, what, exactly, is the shadow that he occasionally seems to glimpse from the corner of his eye?). Perhaps a part of him believes he is as deserving of punishment as his victims were. Morano’s story sometimes seems florid and overwritten, but that tendency to embellish and overstate also seems to be a characteristic of the narrator, who obviously considers himself something of an artist with murder as his medium.
Ishtar is a three-novella volume edited by Amanda Pillar and K.V. Taylor. The middle story of the three, “And the Dead Shall Outnumber the Living,” by Deborah Biancotti, takes place in the present, in Australia. Adrienne, a police officer, has sought out Nina, a high-priced (and apparently legal) whore who used to run the sex workers’ union. Adrienne hopes that Nina can help her identify some very strange corpses of male prostitutes. Nina must work from facial reconstructions, because each of the corpses has had every single bone in his body broken — pulverized, really, turned to dust. No one knows how this sort of death could be accomplished, much less the reason for the deaths of the prostitutes. Adrienne has only two leads, one a liberation group and one The Cult of the Goddess, a cult that worships Ishtar, the goddess of love and war. The story develops as a police procedural, with Adrienne following ever stranger leads, right up to the point where she’s dealing with an undersea army of overgrown embryos bent on drowning the world. The story depends too much on the reader’s familiarity with the myth of Ishtar, meaning that anyone not current on her Assyrian and Babylonian religions is going to feel the need for a dictionary of mythology.
Tim Waggoner’s The Men Upstairs is not for the faint of heart. This novella provoked a strong revulsion in me even as I appreciated what the author was trying to do, and could see that he was doing it very well. It absolutely walks the line between the revolting and disgusting and the inspiration of a frisson of weird terror that makes the best horror tales sing. This story is really all about sex, and it’s frightening, overwhelming and seems just plain wrong. The story begins when the first-person protagonist sees a young woman sitting on the floor of a movie theater, crying. Unlike everyone else around her, the man can’t just ignore her, and he offers her help. She has clearly been badly mistreated, and he soon discovers that she has been kept as a sort of sex slave by a trio of men who are unnatural, to say the least. Certainly they are not human, and the protagonist soon finds that he has gone straight down a rabbit hole into a world he never even imagined when they move into the apartment upstairs from his in a long-term plan to get their woman back. His connection with the woman intensifies and grows, too, both sexually and emotionally, and soon the protagonist moves beyond seeing, hearing and experiencing things far from his ken, but into committing his own heinous yet saving acts. I’ve never read anything like this story, and I hope I never do again — yet I think it has merit in the way it stays on that knife’s edge between the disgusting and the Weird.
Despite the perverse brilliance of The Men Upstairs, there are three stories nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award that are so well-written that the panel awarding the prizes must be tearing out its collective hair choosing between them.
First is Lucius Shepard’s “Rose Street Attractors,” which is so different from “The Men Upstairs” that it’s hard to believe they exist in the same universe. While Shepard, too, writes of sex and horror, he does so in a highly stylized way that is entirely appropriate to the steampunkishness of his story. Shepard’s story is about a young alienist who is approached by a man at his club — the Inventors’ Club — to solve a problem. Jeffrey Richmond has invented a device that seems to be able to remove coal particulates from the air, but at the same time it also seems to attract phantoms, including that of his sister. He wants the alienist, Samuel Prothero, to find out how his sister was murdered. Prothero undertakes an investigation in the odd household that Richmond has established in the building where his sister once ran a whorehouse. The mystery unravels in a leisurely manner, the writing exquisite in its temper, creating an atmosphere, a time, a place, and ultimately reaching a solution that seems inevitable once it occurs. This encourages me to read more of the collection from which it came, Ghosts by Gaslight, edited by Jack Dann and Nick Gevers.
The other two stories are both from the Stephen Jones’s A Book of Horrors, which is a pip of a collection that I recommend highly. “A Child’s Problem” by Reggie Oliver is a seemingly gentle story, but it has a knife at its heart. It concerns George, a child essentially abandoned by his parents to the unloving care of the uncle from whom he will one day inherit. (His parents are going to India to make their fortune, leaving him behind with the excuse that he needs to stay behind for the sake of his education. Uncle Augustus is not a pleasant person, perhaps because of the unhappy death of his young wife some years before. He has no interest in attempting to make life happy or even particularly bearable for George in the year and a half or so they must live together before George will be off to Eton. Little is planned for the child’s amusement, though Uncle Augustus has hired a tutor. This leaves George free to roam the estate and its extensive grounds, and he soon enters into a weird sort of contest with his uncle for knowledge of those grounds — and knowledge of his uncle’s secret. It is wonderful to watch this child turn the tables on his horrible relative in an atmosphere that drips with menace. It’s a beautifully written story.
Elizabeth Hand is one of my favorite writers, and “Near Zennor” only increases my admiration of her skills. This story begins when Jeffrey discovers letters written by his wife to a children’s author when she was young, lovingly kept despite the increasing anger evident in them as the author failed to pay her the attention she sought. Jeffrey finds them only after his wife dies, suddenly and shockingly, of a brain aneurysm, and he becomes obsessed with the mystery of the letters as he attempts to come to terms with her too young, senseless death. He speaks with one of her friends from that time, and she tells him how they traveled over the moors to where the author lived when they were just barely into their teenage years, and the odd experience they had with a made-up ritual that seemed more real to them after it was finished — frighteningly so — than they could have imagined when they began it. Jeffrey tries to retrace his wife’s steps, all those years ago, and discovers more, and less, than he needs to. It’s an atmospherically tense, dark story, with more told by implication and the surmise of the reader than directly; Hand terrifies with misdirection. It’s another beautifully written story.