The internet has been a tremendous boon to short fiction readers. Many excellent web-based publications, from Subterranean Magazine to Clarkesworld to Beyond Ceaseless Skies to Lightspeed are thriving. Now there’s a new kid on the block: The Dark. Issue 1, dated October 2013, describes itself this way:
In the pages of The Dark, you will find a different kind of dark fiction. Just that – different. And dark. Not necessarily horror, per se, with blood and guts and serial killers, but fiction that is weird and offbeat; magic realism; the fantastic; dark science fiction (and not your ordinary “robots and aliens” science fiction). No variation is off limits, and we will be encouraging our writers to take chances with their fiction.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Fortunately, the first issue fulfills the promise made in this paragraph, for the four stories it contains are dark and beautiful. And here’s something interesting: the authors of these four stories are all women.
The first story is “The Carpet” by Nnedi Okorafor. Okorafor sprang on the scene with her first novel in 2005, but really made a splash with Who Fears Death in 2010, which won the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, along with a boatload of other nominations and awards. This story is set in Nigeria, where the narrator and her sister are visiting from Chicago. They visit a marketplace in Abuja before heading for the village from which their father hails, where he has built a house (though at the time of the story he is still in Chicago, ill). They buy a beautiful carpet as a housewarming gift for their parents from a dealer known as Junk Man, who says some odd things, consistent with his reputation as a crazy man.
When they get to the village, they find that their father’s house, which had been fully furnished, has been ransacked by their relatives. Every stick of furniture is gone. Massive spiders live in every corner, and pink wall geckos scurry across the ceilings. But the narrator’s sister, Zuma, insists that they will sleep there. While the narrator is complaining of the heat and the mosquitos, and her sister is complaining about their thieving relatives, they hear an odd sound outside the door, a scraping that goes on all night. The next morning, the spiders are gone, and the carpet they bought is somehow upstairs instead of downstairs where they left it. They’re convinced someone snuck in to mess with their heads. But the truth is stranger than that. It’s a fine story about a culture foreign to most American readers, written well with finely shaped characters.
Rachel Swirsky loves to give her stories long, lovely titles, and “What Lies at the Edge of a Petal is Love” is her latest. Ruth moves into Jack’s Victorian mansion after they are married, bringing only two bags: one is full of clothes and the other is full of vanilla-scented lotions, deodorants, soaps, moisturizers, scrubs and splashes. Jack loves to watch her in the morning as she uses every one of these products to get herself ready for the day, and he loves to inhale her fragrance when she is through. The two live there, isolated from crowds and away from the city. Before either of them really knows it, Ruth “ripens”; her stomach droops, and before long her belly becomes cumbersome. Is she pregnant? Not precisely: one morning, Jack awakes to find that she has become a flower. The story becomes stranger from there, as poor Jack tries to cope with this odd situation. It’s an odd but charming story that, at its root, is about love.
I’ve not read as much of Angela Slatter’s work as I’d like to, but everything I’ve read from her pen so far is wonderful, and “By My Voice I Shall Be Known” is no exception. Slatter’s narrator is a woman who makes gorgeous quilts, spending days, weeks, months assembling the appropriate materials and then sewing each quilt specially for its owner. As the story begins, she is working on a wedding quilt — a quilt that was to have been hers. But Adlai, her man, has abandoned her for a woman more highly placed in society, more educated, after she did what was necessary to help him become established in his career and in society. Adlai pays her back for her help and her love in the most vicious way possible. And she will have her revenge. The story has a fairy tale feel to it, perhaps because the narrator wields a dark magic, perhaps because of the presence of the rusalka in a nearby river. Things do not work out for the narrator as she would have them, but perhaps there is something else for her.
Lisa L. Hannett is the author of “Another Mouth.” It is the story of Maura, who has no food for the young strangers — fantastic beings who are unkind when not fed. But Maura’s husband, who used to bring food home from the sea, has virtually lost his mind with the death of his son. And the wights are not to be put off. Maura has a solution, though, a desperate and horrible one.
I’m eagerly looking forward to the next issue of this new bimonthly publication. If the quality of the stories in this issue are any indication, there is much good fiction to come.