Welcome news: Subterranean Magazine, a quarterly publication, has announced that it will be available for free download from here on out. The announcement was accompanied by the free editions of the Fall 2012 and the Winter 2013 issues, each of which contains a number of excellent novellas — a length for which Subterranean Press, as well as the magazine, are known. Many, including me, consider the novella to be the ideal length for science fiction, fantasy and horror: it provides the author with enough space for world building, but not more space than many stories need. The novellas in these two issues illustrate this opinion nicely.
“African Sunrise” by Nnedi Okorafor is the opening tale in the Fall 2012 issue, and it is the best story in both issues. It is “excerpted from The Great Book,” which appears to be Okorafor’s multi-volume project; she has described “African Sunrise” is a sort of prequel to Who Fears Death, a novel which won the 2011 World Fantasy Award. The protagonist and narrator is Phoenix, who lives on the 13th floor of Tower 7 in her world, and she has just realized that she is a prisoner. She is treated well, with all the access to information she could want (and she is quite a reader), but she has no opportunity to leave the tower, or even her floor. Tower 7 is a place of human experimentation as well as a collection of humans with odd capabilities. Saeed, for instance, the survivor of a famine, has the ability to eat any sort of refuse and survive; crushed glass is his favorite dish. We learn early in the story that Phoenix was created in the tower, and looks like a 40-year-old woman, even though she is only two years old. But we hardly know anything about Phoenix from these facts, and even Phoenix is unaware of her own nature. She begins her process of self-discovery when Saeed dies from eating an apple; his odd adjustment to the unavailability of real food has left him unable to eat anything but man-made trash, and his despondency at his imprisonment leads him to commit suicide. Phoenix’s anger and despair at his death cause her to remarkable revelations about herself, Tower 7, and the greater world. “African Sunrise” is highly imaginative and unpredictable, well-written and exciting.
A hunt for a man-eating tiger in the Kumaon Province of Northern India is the prime mover of “Game” by Maria Dahvana Headley. The narrator is a man who hasn’t hunted tigers in many years, but who nonetheless has a reputation as a “Shikari” — a big game hunter — from the early days of the 20th century, when he slaughtered many of them. He is an old man now, in the 1950s, but has been asked to dispatch one last creature. The trip brings back memories of his hunting companion, Henry, who died on a hunt long ago. The memories are reinforced when this particular tiger shows impossible signs of being the same tiger the narrator and Henry were hunting all those years ago. The denouement explains how this can be, offering a vision of beauty that one might not expect from a tale of tigers killing men and men killing the tigers who kill them.
“Two-Stone Tom’s Big T.O.E.” by Brian Lumley is ultimately just silly, even insulting to the canny reader who will have guessed the well-worn punchline very early on. But in the meantime, the story of two people caught in a parking structure that is shifting around in time due to a physics experiment is mildly interesting.
“When the Shadows are Hungry and Cold” by Kealan Patrick Burke is billed as A Milestone Story, and is part of a series of stories set in a town named Milestone. The story doesn’t say where Milestone is — in fact, it seems Milestone can’t actually be found on any map — but it feels like it belongs in one of those big square states where the farmlands go on for acres upon acres upon acres. Maybe that’s just my personal vision of where a town smack dab in the middle of horror should go. At any rate, the story opens when Bryce, a deputy police officer (Milestone’s only deputy, and one of two police officers along with the sheriff) finds yet another single vehicle accident at the town’s border. The car looks like it ran into a wall at the border, as many of these accidents do, but the sheriff has told Bryce that the spot must be one where the deer like to cross the road. The driver of the car is still alive, and the way she looks, together with what she has to say before she dies, frightens Bryce so much that he cannot bring himself to go home to his pregnant wife. It’s where he chooses to go instead that seals his fate. It’s not clear whether anything supernatural is going on, but that very uncertainty gives the story a depth that makes it truly horrifying.
I didn’t enjoy the Winter 2013 issue of Subterranean Magazine as much as the Fall 2012 issue. Still, its novellas are entertaining. The first is “The Boolean Gate” by Walter Jon Williams. It is a story of Sam Clemens, who has just lost his daughter and is in the process of losing his wife, Livy; of a man who both loves and hates his fame as Mark Twain. And it is the story of Nikola Tesla, an acquaintance of Mr. Twain’s, who is building some very strange machines for what seem like very strange purposes. Wireless communications? How very odd. Worse, Mr. Twain witnesses Mr. Tesla in strange trances, when he appears to be under the influence of — well, of whom, precisely? Mr. Twain is frightened enough of the answer that he drops a word or two in the right ears. The story clearly benefits from the recent release of Mark Twain’s autobiography, painting the man as far more bitter and unhappy in his late years than he had been in the popular imagination. It’s a skillful piece of —well, I hesitate to call it alternate history, because it doesn’t seem to deviate from history as we know it, and who can say whether the particulars are accurate?
Steven R. Boyett doesn’t tell us that he’s writing about the Lone Ranger and Tonto in “Hard Silver,” but it’s pretty obvious who his characters are intended to be. They visit a town that used to work a silver mine, but that now seems almost deserted, and the remaining residents are very unfriendly to strangers. The nature of those residents becomes a matter of some concern to the visiting heroes, especially on the evening of a full moon.
The final tale is “Raptors,” by Conrad Williams, about a relationship, of sorts, between a boy and a girl during a hot summer in a small town, the summer before they head off to college and/or the world. They both work in a bar and make out like mad after the place closes, but they only actually have intercourse once, at the very beginning, for reasons the boy — the narrator — can’t figure out. As the summer goes by, Warrington — as she calls him, for the place of his birth — begins to think there’s something a bit strange about Dervla. In particular, there’s Dervla’s strange reaction to a hawk — or, rather, its strange reaction to her. Photographing raptors is Warrington’s hobby, and he takes Dervla to a falconry one rainy day, and when it’s Dervla’s turn to feed the hawk, it attacks her. And Dervla seems to enjoy the attack. Things get stranger from there. It’s a skillfully written story with a cleverly ambiguous ending.
Note: the online Winter 2013 issue contains an additional story by Walter Jon Williams entitled “Surfacing,” which I have not read (and, indeed, did not notice until moments before this post went live). I do not know why the downloaded version of the magazine does not contain this story.