Magazine Monday: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Issues 131-133

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issue 131 Magazine MondayIssue 131 is the fifth anniversary issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and it has five extraordinary tales.  The first is “Cherry Blossoms on the River of Souls” by Richard Parks.  Parks’ tales, usually set in an unnamed Asian country that bears a close resemblance to Japan, often deal with characters who need to find themselves.  This tale is no different.  Hiroshi, a boy, tends to stare down a dry well in much of his free time, for to him the well is full of music.  No one else can hear it, though.  Hiroshi’s uncle tries to dissuade him from listening to the well, instead encouraging him to engage in usual childhood pursuits, but Hiroshi finds the games of children tedious, unchanging and, well, childish.  Hiroshi finally decides to go into the well to find out what is there.  His experiences can be summed up in a thought he has again and again:  “This is a very strange cave.”  There is much for him to learn there, however, and we learn those lessons with him.  It’s a delicate tale, well told.

“Walls of Skin, Soft as Paper” by Adam Callaway is a short, weird tale that is more a slice of a strange life than it is a conventional story.  It is about Tomai, who works in the lampblack mines.  We follow Tomai as he returns home from his shift to the bugspit district, a massive papery mound inhabited by humans but created by termites the size of buggies, who still crawl over its surface.  On the way, he comes upon a dwarf being beaten by children, whom he saves.  When he returns home, he and his wife bathe.  It all sounds pretty normal, but it’s not.  According to the biographical information following the story, Callaway has a number of stories set in this world, known as Lacuna; I’m curious to see more.

The stand-out story in this issue — indeed, in all of the issues reviewed here — is Alberto Yáñez’s “The Coffinmaker’s Love.”  The protagonist is Lavinia Parrish, who has apprenticed herself to a coffinmaker of “great skill but odd repute.”  In a lengthy flashback, we learn why Lavinia has made this odd choice, beginning with her first encounter with a strange girl when she was just six years old.  As the two girls play on the swing, they witness the death of another child on the slide in the same playground.  Lavinia’s playmate disappears after the death, and Lavinia observes that no one else seems to have seen her.  Lavinia doesn’t know what has happened, but the reader begins to suspect almost immediately.  Those suspicions are confirmed in later encounters between the two women, and Lavinia herself figures out the identity of her playmate — now her sweetheart — in fairly short order.  The depths of Lavinia’s love are revealed as she grows old.  I was in tears as I finished this sweet story.

“Blow ‘Em Down” by Rebecca Gomez Farrell is a retelling of the biblical story of the fall of Jericho, when Joshua’s army marched around it blowing trumpets.  But Farrell’s Jericho is a domed city in the far future. Moses has gotten his people lost in the desert for 40 years, despite the short distance between Egypt and Jericho and a prediction that it would take 40 days to make the journey.  Apparently solar-powered chariots don’t work in the desert, though why even a walk would take 40 years seems plenty mysterious, especially in a world that includes airships.  What, they couldn’t call for help?  The story strains credulity beyond the breaking point.

Naim Kabir’s “On the Origin of Song” is a strange story about a creature (a golem?) who gives his name as Chala Darune, and claims to be a naturalist.  This individual is able to ingest inks, stamp his foot on vellum, and produce writing.  This act is deemed deviant, though not illegal, writes the police officer charged with capturing the creature.  The next section of the story tells of a land therein called Sunrook, where every living thing sings; the narrator is not named, but appears to be Darune.  A seer is the writer of the next section, relating the coming of Darune to mountain caves  and beyond that, to mountain caves.  And so the tale continues, with landscapes becoming ever more fantastic and filled with ever more fantastic creatures.  Music and writing fill the story and infect the peoples of the lands Darune travels through.  It is a poetic and weird piece of writing, with little plot but much atmosphere.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies Issues 132-133 Magazine MondayIssue 132 opens with “A Feast for Dust” by Gemma Files, continuing her string of mash-ups of westerns with hard-core horror.  Clarke Jenkins is following the trail of Sartain Stannard Reese, a mass murderer who has wiped out whole towns.  Jenkins wears a badge, but he is far from his territory — Esther, a town of which he is the only citizen who remains alive, after a visit from Reese.  He arrives at a town that perhaps doesn’t deserve that appellation; it’s so small it doesn’t have a name.  There he meets the local sheriff, and together they track Reese.  Or so it seems.  Files includes her usual intimations of homosexuality among bad guys in the West, as well as scary scenes of extreme violence.  It’s a competently written story, but I found it lacking solid characterization or real emotion.

In “The Adventure of the Pyramid of Bacconyus” by Caleb Wilson, three cousins have left a regiment after all their officers were killed.  But these three cousins don’t appear to be entirely human.  They need wine to keep their wits about them, for instance, and the fact that the officers gave them names is about the only good thing they can think of about them.  And they look a bit like — well, walking trees.  Now that they are separated from their regiment, they are searching for the magic goblet of Bacconyus, which is always filled with wine.  It’s in the Pyramid of Bacconyus, to which they tromp, only to find that it is actually the Lodge of Xiczarthotep.  Not only that, but they are considered new initiates.  They have their own ideas about that, though, especially when it comes to worshipping something that lives deep in the earth.  It’s an almost-comical story with a Lovecraftian flavor to it.  Unfortunately, it stops rather than ends, making it a disappointing read.

Matthew Kressel’s “Pheth’s Aviary” is the first of two stories in Issue 133, which is deemed a “grim monstrous ghostly special issue for Halloween!”  Pheth, a demon, labors in the kitchen of the queen’s palace despite the fact that he sickens at the sight of cooked flesh.  Perhaps it is because of his kind heart that the animals kept for eventual butchering do not fear him.  In fact, the first dish we see him prepare is 25 Canadian geese; he apologizes to them, and they bow their necks for him to break.  A gosling wanders into the light after the slaughter, and Pheth places it in his pocket, where it safely remains as he prepares the dead geese for the queen’s table.  So successful is his preparation of the geese that the queen summons him to demand that he prepare birds for her daily, for she wishes to taste one of every bird, from every planet, in every dimension.  Pheth agonizes over his task, for the worlds from which the birds are plucked are beautiful to him, and the birds themselves more so; yet each species, no matter how exotic, bows its neck for his hands, and each species leaves a baby bird for him to care for.  Pheth’s aching mind and heart are ultimately eased, but in a manner the reader would never guess.  It is a lovely story with a surprising amount of beauty, given that it is set in Hell.  This story is a close second to the Yáñez story I praise above.

“Not the Worst of Sins” by Alan Baxter is a western ghost story.  The narrator is a young man searching for his father with only a ghost named Graham Masters for company.  He’s been told that the man who fathered him goes by any three different names, and inquires in the small towns he stumbles across for all of them.  His father killed Masters, which is why Masters is willing to help him out, keeping the other ghosts off him and aiding in the search.  But who, exactly, is Masters, and why is he so willing to help the kid?  It’s a hard, cold story.

The range of tales told in Beneath Ceaseless Skies is broad and keep getting broader, even as the magazine stays within the realm of adventure fantasy.  Here’s to its next five years!


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TERRY WEYNA, on our staff since December 2010, would rather be reading than doing almost anything else. She reads all day long as an insurance coverage attorney, and in all her spare time as a reviewer, critic and writer. Terry lives in Northern California with her husband, professor emeritus and writer Fred White, two rambunctious cats, and an enormous library.

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