The spring issue of Subterranean is exceptionally strong, even for a publication known for its excellent fiction. The six long pieces in this issue seem to be somewhat thematically linked, most of them having taken some form of art as their theme.
In “Painted Birds and Shivered Bones” by Kat Howard, an artist named Maeve has gone for a walk, seeking both fresh air and perspective, when she sees a naked man crouched beside a cathedral. She reaches into her purse for her phone, but when she looks up again, the man is gone. In his place is a beautiful white bird. How could she have confused a bird, no matter how large and beautiful, with a naked man? Regardless, the bird proves to be a remarkable inspiration, and Maeve is soon working on a series of paintings of mythological birds. But what of the bird who inspired her? Maeve is not finished with him. He is a man under a curse, a thing of fairy tales himself. The tale plays out with emphasis on both fairy tales and creating art, entwining the two until creating art becomes fully as magical as any fantasy.
William Browning Spencer is one of my favorite authors, so a short story by him is a treat. In “The Indelible Dark,” Spencer writes of a hitchhiking boy who is picked up by a girl and her chauffeur. The boy identifies the chauffeur as “an Albert or a Jorge, and possibly dangerous but predictable.” The girl accurately identifies the boy as “a Cory,” but in this case she is referring to his family and not his social caste. She is Mary Constant, and advises the boy that her people fight against Lethe’s Children. And then the story is wrenched out of that world, and the author addresses his readers directly, ironically starting with, “Okay. This isn’t one of those metafiction things. I hate it when an author intrudes[.]” He seems to be writing only for himself as he takes a break from writing his nascent novel. He writes about his experiences with his strange landlord and his odd neighbors before plunging us back into Mark Cory’s story in a far future — and then back again to his own life, identifying which character in his novel is which figure in his life. It’s a peculiar story in which neither plot takes precedence and both tell odd stories that seem to have no relationship to one another, but also seem to converge in a way not entirely spelled out. Strange and wonderful, vintage Spencer.
“A Stranger Comes to Kalimpura” by Jay Lake is narrated by Lake’s series character, Green, a girl raised to be a gift, who created a goddess, and who became the head of a religious order that practices violence when necessary. In this story, Green is old, and is telling us a tale of what occurred when a stranger came to town — not a foreigner, she says, but someone strange. Green is commanded by the city’s powers to appear at the Evenfire Gate to deal with the stranger, and finds the assembled Guildsmen there, in armor. But all that is outside the gate is a man, just a man; no hordes of soldiers, no weaponry evident, nothing that should make him as frightening as he is. He demands that the city surrender, and no one sees any oddity in this. He is clearly dangerous, and he clearly has the means to destroy the city if it will not bow before him. The novella about how Green deals with this man — or is he a god? — brings us deeper into the universe Lake has created. Green’s voice is, as always, sharp and clear and pitiless. She is a haunting character.
Caitlín R. Kiernan has become another of my favorite writers, and “The Prayer of Ninety Cats” ably demonstrates why. It is a story that seems to be about a movie, almost an expanded review of a movie no one in this world has ever seen. But first, Kiernan sets the scene, placing readers in her movie theater through scent, using the “notes” metaphor normally used to describe perfume:
The theatre air is musty and has a sickly sweet sourness to it. It swims with the rancid ghosts of popcorn butter, spilled sodas, discarded chewing gum, and half a hundred varieties of candy lost beneath velvet seats and between the carpeted aisles. Let’s say these are the top notes of our perfume. Beneath them lurk the much fainter heart notes of sweat, piss, vomit, cum, soiled diapers — all the pungent gases and fluids a human body may casually expel. Also, though smoking has been forbidden here for decades, the reek of stale cigarettes and cigars persists. Finally, now, the base notes, not to be recognized right away, but registering after half an hour or more has passed, settling in to bestow solidity and depth to this complex. In the main, it strikes the nostrils as dust, though more perceptive noses may discern dry rot mold, and aging mortar. Considered thusly, the atmosphere of this theatre might, appropriately, echo that of a sepulcher, shut away and ripe from generations of use.
That’s some writing! Kiernan goes on to describe the movie — about Elizabeth Bathory, a countess in Hungary who may, historically, have been a serial murderer — nearly frame by frame. Somehow the horror of Bathory is greater in this telling than she would be in film, because in this manner readers draw their own pictures, voice the dialogue with their own sounds, empathize with the characters as if they were those characters rather than merely observing. The story is about the magic of Bathory, but also of the magic of story.
Next comes “The Seafarer” by Tobias S. Buckell. It is set in a universe that Buckell has previously written about in The Executioness. Ten soldiers have ceased running from the Executioness and her forces, having finally reached the ocean shore. Alej is their leader, and when they hastily part as a war party approaches, Alej finds employment on a trading ship. The ship depends on Rusajka as a trading partner; it buys what the ship brings to harbor, and in turn provides wood for repairs and magic to keep items like the hydromorpheum — a magical machine that turns sea water into fresh water — in working order. But the Majistra of Rusajka attempts to drive so hard a bargain that the ship turns elsewhere for trade. And thereby hangs this tale, an enjoyable narrative of swords and treachery, hard men and hard women, water and land and bramble.
The issue ends with “The Syndrome” by Brian Francis Slattery, who just won the Philip K. Dick Award for his novel, Lost Everything. The story is narrated by a psychiatrist who treats the undead, who overran the world at least four human generations ago. It was so long ago that no one really remembers anything about the Grand Transition, though they understand that it was terrible. Zombies no longer feed on humans, as it was too much work to hunt and herd them; they switched to pigs and goats, and keep humans around to do what they cannot, such as architecture, accounting, public works projects — and psychiatry. The narrator believes that many, if not most, of the undead suffer from dementia. In particular, they have no real concept of time, but live in an eternal present. This has caused the death of virtually all forms of art, which the narrator deeply regrets. One day a depressed zombie patient tells her that he has again attempted to end his existence, and she suggests that he paint. It’s a suggestion that literally changes this world, or at least the city in which the narrator resides.
The most amazing thing about Subterranean is that all of this great fiction is available for free, whether by download or to read online. It is not to be missed.